Want to achieve something? Picture yourself doing it from a third-person perspective

'Visualise yourself doing it' is a common slice of advice for people seeking to achieve something. But there are two ways of visualising yourself in a scene: from a first-person perspective as in real-life, or from an external perspective, as an observer might see you. Now Lisa Libby and colleagues have demonstrated that it's this latter, third-person perspective that is far more effective in raising the likelihood we will go on to perform a desired behaviour.

One hundred and forty-six undergrad participants, all of whom had registered to vote, were asked to imagine themselves going to the polling booth to vote the next day, in what were then the upcoming 2002 presidential elections. Just under half were instructed to do this from a first-person perspective, the remainder were told to do it from a third-person perspective.

Next they answered questions about their attitudes to voting: how important it is to vote, and the lengths they would go to make their vote. Already differences appeared – those students who had visualised themselves voting from a third-person perspective displayed a stronger pro-voting mindset.

But most vitally, 95 of the participants were followed up a few weeks later (an equal proportion from each of the visualisation conditions), and 90 per cent of the participants who'd imagined themselves voting from a third-person perspective reported that they had indeed gone on to vote, compared with just 72 per cent of the first-person perspective participants – a statistically significant difference.

The researchers said these findings extend prior work showing that we tend to interpret other people's actions as saying something about them, whereas we interpret our own actions as saying more about the situation we're in. So, when we picture ourselves acting in the third-person, we see ourselves as an observer would, as the 'kind of person' who performs that behaviour. "Seeing oneself as the type of person who would engage in a desired behaviour increases the likelihood of engaging in that behaviour", the researchers said.

Libby, L.K., Shaeffer, E.M., Eibach, R.P. & Slemmer, J.A. (2007). Picture yourself at the polls. Visual perspective in mental imagery affects self-perception and behaviour. Psychological Science, 18, 199-203.
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