April 24, 2009

The power of evoking positive behavior representations

In Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes (Frontiers of Social Psychology), Ap Dijksterhuis, Tanya Chartrand and Henk Aarts have written the chapter Effects of Priming and Perception on Social Behavior and Goal Pursuit. In it they present a model which describes different pathways through which behavior is produced. As the picture on the right shows, the model distinguishes 7 separate paths. One pathway which is particularly interesting for solution-focused practitioners is number 7.
Here is a quote from the chapter which explains path 7:
Jeannerod (1994, 1997) demonstrated effects of activated behavior representations on motor programs. He compared people imagining an action with people engaging in these actions (again, such as weightlifting, rowing, or running) and showed that under both conditions the same motor areas became active. Some sport psychologists have also used the EMG to show that imagining an action and engaging in an action often have the same neuropsychological consequences (Hale, 1982; Paus, Petrides, Evans & Meyer, 1993). This and other work led Jeannerod (1995) to conclude that "simulating a movement is the same as performing it, except that the execution is blocked" (p.1421). Recent research went even further and demonstrated that merely hearing a verb or retrieving a verb from memory activates corresponding motor representations (Jeannerod, 1999; Perani et al., 1999; see also Grezes & Decety, 2001). In sum, activation of a behavior representation (by thinking about it or hearing it) leads to activation of motor programs and to actual behavior.
Here is an explanation for why two of the most popular solution-focused questions may work so well: the desired situation question (as I call it) and the past success question (de Shazer, 1985). You might say that the combination of these two questions capture the essence of the solution-focused process. After all, Steve de Shazer described this essence as building a bridge between success in the past and success in the future (more about this here: The two most essential solution-focused questions).
The desired situation question invites clients to describe in detail how they would like things to become. The solution-focused coach or therapist encourages the client to describe this situation in terms of positive and specific results and deliberates probes for how the client himself will act in that situation. With the past success question, the solution-focused coach or therapist invites the client to describe, in specific and behavioral terms situations, that have been better. Authors have often described how powerful these interventions can be. Once clients begin to describe how things will be or have been better the change seems to start. They become more positive and energized and they sometimes say they can't wait to begin and take steps forward.
Both the desired situation question and the past success question are examples of evoking desirable behavior representations. Through the work of the abovementioned social psychologist we can understand more about why these interventions are so powerful. Once there is a behavior representation, the preparation of the execution of that very behavior will automatically start.
Also read: Ideomotor effect


  1. Interesting post.

    In my book on coaching, among the reasons why SF works, I mentioned the literature in sports psychology about visualization and motor activation.
    I linked this to the "preferred situation", the future - i did not think of linking it to the past.Good job!

    You might also want to check out all the work being done in the field of "embodied cognition"; for example, the work by Glenberg & Kashak. They demonstrated that when people are understanding language they are doing a simulation that involves the motor system, in a very simple but elegant experiment.


  2. Hello Paolo, Thanks for that great tip. Do you have a link to that publication of Glenberg & Kashak?

  3. I'll do better than that.
    I'll send you the transcript of an interview of Glenberg where he describes the experiment.
    Coming up in your mailbox.

  4. great, thanks a lot! I'll read it on my vacation next week

  5. Ah, I'm just so pleased with knowing that you two guys are digging around in the same fields. There are several of Glenbergs papers here: http://psych.wisc.edu/glenberg/GlenbergLab/Pubs.html

    Tracking Glenberg you also find Katchak here:

    Tracking Katchak takes you back to Amsterdam and Rolf Zwaaks team:


    I've got to retrain my speedreading skills again


  6. Hi Michael, thanks for these links. They look very interesting.

  7. Can Coert or Paolo please give us all the link to the interview of Glenberg where he describes the experiment?



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