“If [more] information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
— Derek Sivers
Thinking about a problem can often feel the same as dealing with it. This can be a dangerous psychological effect, which threatens to undermine your attempts at self-improvement. Behavioural scientists have published dozens of studies on this over the last two decades. Let’s take a moment to see how it works.
When we say we are ‘thinking’ we mean we’re dealing with the world symbolically. We might be doing it purely in our heads, we might have the support of a piece of paper or a computer screen, but the information in our heads, on the paper, or on the screen, stands in for the stuff in the real world. For instance, the word ‘apple’ is related in your brain to a physically real, roughly spherical, juicy fruit. At least, it is if you’ve had a fairly average upbringing in an English-speaking country. The word, either spoken out loud by someone else, or just in your head in the form of a thought, comes to have some of the same function as the thing it’s associated with. If you like apples, you are currently hungry, and someone says ‘there’s an apple in the fruit bowl’ you might well go in search of said fruit bowl. Why? Because apples are attractive to you, the word ‘apple’ has the power to influence you in a similar way to (though not exactly the same way as) a real apple. If we ask you to bring to mind the smell of rotten fish, what happens? Are you able to imagine it? Is it delightful? If we were to put you in a brain scanner, we would find that there is considerable similarity between what your brain does when presented with words that ask you to imagine rotten fish, and what it does in the presence of actual rotten fish. The words (we might say the thoughts or ideas), come to have a similar function to the real thing.
Have you ever wanted to ask someone to stop talking about some future event you’re nervous about? “Yeah, the job interview is on Tuesday. Let’s talk about something else.” Why? Because the power of language means that the words have some of the same functions as the actual event. Being in a difficult situation makes you anxious, or unhappy, or whatever, and so talking about it can trigger some amount of that same emotion.
This is not a bug. It’s a fundamental feature. It is literally how language works, and by extension, how thinking works. This feature of language, that words and mental images can stand in for real things, does have a huge drawback however. If we have a desire or goal, thinking too much about it, especially conjuring up vivid mental images of it, can have the same satiating functions as the real thing. That’s big and somewhat abstract claim, so perhaps an example will help.
In the early 1990’s, Dr Gabriele Oettingen and Dr Thomas Wadden conducted a study at the University of Pennsylvania with people who had signed up to a weight loss program at the medical school. They asked participants to give dispassionate ratings of how much they expected to lose weight. They just asked a simple question and got a reply on a numerical scale. Next, they asked them to really get into it, to think extensively about their new future self, to try to see their future self in their mind’s eye, and so on. Participants were asked to rate these future fantasies as positive (looking good) or negative. By the end of the weight loss programme, those who hadn’t really expected to lose weight had done about as well as anyone else. No big result. But those who were able to conjure up a rich and clear mental image of their future self as successfully slimmed-down were significantly more likely to have … failed to lose weight. Let that sink in. Thinking briefly about the future and evaluating it was not associated with worse outcomes, but thinking really deeply, conjuring up pleasing mental images, and so on, was associated with worse outcomes.
At the time, this study was largely discounted as being a fluke, not least because the data were correlational. The researchers merely noted down who came up (naturally) with positive or negative mental images. Since that study, however, Dr Oettingen and her colleagues have gone on to demonstrate in a number of different experiments that asking someone to think excessively, and especially to fantasise, about a desirable goal, actually makes it less likely that the person will carry out the behaviours necessary to reach that goal. It’s clear to us that the mental image has some of the same functions as the real-life outcome. In particular, it switches off motivation, as if the goal has already been achieved.
Thinking through a problem is surely a good thing. Burying your head in the sand — failing to think about and imagine what you really want in life — is not a recipe for long-term satisfaction. But most people don’t know that the opposite tendency — imagining or fantasising about positive outcomes — can be an equally pernicious trap. There is danger here for self-help and philosophy junkies. The mere act of reading a book about something can trick our brains into feeling like we’ve fixed the problem. Many self-help gurus will compound this problem by asking you explicitly to imagine your perfect future. We can get a sort of ‘aha!’ feeling that tricks us. Knowing the solution isn’t the same as implementing it. At least, it isn’t the same in the real world, though your brain doesn’t always know the difference. Don’t turn into the sort of person who reads reads yet another self-help book, pats himself on the back for making an effort to improve his life, then closes the book without acting on any of the changes the book describes. (And if you are that person already, now is the time to stop!)
Shout out to my buddy Vince, who reminded me about that great Sivers quote at the top, and thus gave me the impetus to write this post.
 Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 167–175.
 e.g. Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 719–729. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003