Do positive expectations and fantasies help you achieve goals?

Positive expectations do. Positive fantasies don’t:

Two forms of thinking about the future are distinguished: expectations versus fantasies. Positive expectations (judging a desired future as likely) predicted high effort and successful performance, but the reverse was true for positive fantasies (experiencing one’s thoughts and mental images about a desired future positively). Participants were graduates looking for a job (Study 1), students with a crush on a peer of the opposite sex (Study 2), undergraduates anticipating an exam (Study 3), and patients undergoing hip-replacement surgery (Study 4). Effort and performance were measured weeks or months (up to 2 yrs) after expectations and fantasies had been assessed. Implications for the self-regulation of effort and performance are discussed.

Source: “The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies.” from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 83(5), Nov 2002, 1198-1212

PsyBlog breaks it down:

The difference might sound relatively trivial, but it’s not. Expectations are based on past experiences. You expect to do well in an exam because you’ve done well in previous exams, you expect to meet another partner because you managed to meet your last partner, and so on.

Fantasies, though, involve imagining something you hope will happen in the future, but experiencing it right now. This turns out to be problematic.

The researchers found that when trying to get a job, find a partner, pass an exam or get through surgery, those who spent more time entertaining positive fantasies did worse.

Take those looking for a job. Those who spent more time dreaming about getting a job, performed worse. Two years after leaving college the dreamers:

  • had applied for fewer jobs,
  • unsurprisingly had been offered fewer jobs,
  • and, if they were in work, had lower salaries.

On the other hand those who entertained more negative future fantasies were more likely to achieve their goals. Similar results were seen for the other goals.

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