In her new book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, the author, Cordelia Fine cites studies that show how our lives are affected directly by the labels we give ourselves. I’m not interested in the strictly gender-related aspects of this discussion, at least not for Consumerism Commentary, but I am interested in the study that was related to an audience via NPR.
People in the study were asked to imagine the life of a certain vocation. Those running the study separated the subjects into one group asked to visualize the life of a physics professor, while the other group considered what it would be like to be a cheerleader. Then, the study required the subjects to imagine themselves in those roles. Those in the first group were more likely to consider themselves clever while the others were more likely to consider themselves gorgeous.
That result provides some insight into how visualization can change the perception of ourselves, but that’s not quite startling. The interesting part is what follows:
The exercise had actual effects on how people performed on tests. Those who had identified with the professor performed better on tests of analytic intelligence than those who had identified with the cheerleader!
Not only were those in the physics professor group more likely to consider themselves clever, they were tested and proven to be more clever — as a result, the researchers concluded, of the visualization technique.
I haven’t read the book, and I haven’t analyzed the study. From what I’ve seen of criticisms, the sample may have been too small to conclude anything significant about the effect of this type of visualization in psychology and neurobiology. I believe visualization is important, but it is not alone going to change one’s life, unlike some pop psychology advice. You cannot manifest a change in your life, like being smarter, more attractive, or wealthier, just by imagining what life would be like for someone who is smarter, more attractive of wealthier. The Law of Attraction is an idea that changes in one’s life can manifest just by focusing thoughts on a particular issue.
I can’t manifest a steak dinner just by thinking about a steak dinner, and chances are you can’t, either. Focusing thoughts on something is necessary to make a change in your life, but it’s only the starting point. I improved my finances and moves from a negative net worth to a positive net worth just about a decade ago, and this wouldn’t have been possible until I stopped to think about my situation. My life didn’t magically change; I had to make conscious decisions — and I was not used to making conscious decision in most areas of my life — and take direct actions to improve my money management skills.
Visualization is not a fruitless exercise. If you’re a fan of his investing style, consider Warren Buffett. Get to know him. Think about what his life might be like, from the moment he rises until he falls asleep each night. Consider what he might think about on a daily basis. Now imagine you are Warren Buffett, not just by imagining having the same sources of stress and frustration, work and leisure, but by being him inside and out.
If Buffett doesn’t work for you, maybe Bill Gates is your man — or Steve Jobs. Maybe your goal is entrepreneurial. Maybe you’d rather have a woman as a role model. Choose the individual whose success you most relate to, and let their thoughts, feelings, and concerns — or what you imagine them to be — occupy your body and mind for a while.
This may be where some pop psychology ends — just the visualization is enough to lead to success. I think there must be more. This is just the first step. Now, with frequent visualization reminders, make the decisions your role models would make. Ask yourself, “What would Gates do?” and follow that path. You may not be right all the time. Your role model might make a different choice than the one you’d expect, so the more you know about your role model, the more accurate your decision-making will be. Decision-making is an active process, and participation is mandatory. Although I didn’t realize this until I was in my late twenties, and some aspects of my life I still leave to chance despite knowing better, the more I play an active role in my life, the better it is.
By focusing on what your role model would do and taking this approach to decision-making every day, it will become second nature. You won’t have to think about what Buffett would do when deciding to invest in a company because your process will automatically identify the more Buffett-favored option (assuming your understanding of Buffett is accurate enough). By making the choices as if you were someone more successful from you, the choices will eventually result in your success. This isn’t pop psychology, it’s simply understanding how your role models make decisions and learning from them. Visualization is just the first step.
There’s a wrong way to do this, though. Consider the choice of spending $80,000 on a new BMW or $18,000 on a new Honda Civic. What would Buffett do? Well, if he drives rather than outsources his transportation to a driver, he might buy the BMW. $80,000 might be a drop in the bucket to him, considering his total wealth. But what would Buffett do if he had your net worth? Well, if your net worth dictates the Civic is the better choice for future financial stability, he would choose the Civic.
Be relating — or conflating — yourself to your financial heroes, you find yourself making better decisions about money. A series of better financial decisions results in increases of net worth beyond what you might experience if you continue living your life without considering the differences in decision-making between yourself and those whose success you admire.
Published or updated June 28, 2011.