August 15, 2009

Motivational impact of third-person perspective positive behavioral representations

On BPS Research Digest is an interesting article on the power of visualization. (Thanks Jim Mortensen for pointing me to it). It explains there are two ways of visualizing yourself being successful at something: from a first-person perspective as in real-life, or from an external perspective, as an observer might see you. Researchers 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 behavior. "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 behavior. "Seeing oneself as the type of person who would engage in a desired behavior increases the likelihood of engaging in that behavior", the researchers said."

One of the most important parts of the solution-focused approach is to help client create positive behavior descriptions, concrete visualizations of how they will act in the desired future. Evidence shows that once a positive behavior description is made the execution of that behavior will automatically be prepared. Previous research by Noelia Vasquez and Roger Buehler has also shown that using perspective changes in describing future success can be very helpful. This research by Lisa Libby and her team seems to confirm the motivational impact of making third person perspective positive behavior representations. For solution-focused practice, the relevance seems to be: invite clients to describe from a third person perspective how they will act in the desired future.


  1. This seems to add an important dimension to the concept of mental rehearsal. On the one hand if the 3rd person perspective increases the likelihood of performing the behavior, then it seems likely that we are treating this as a form of social imitation, where we are imitating something imagined performed by someone else rather than seen. Perhaps we are leveraging social cognitive mechanisms.

    The other dimension is that mental practice is often prescribed for skill rehearsal, and this is typically done from the 1st person perspective, imagining yourself going through the activity with full sensory imagination, using a more embodied mindset.

    Now since we have some evidence that the 1st and 3rd person imaginative perspectives are mediated by different brain mechanisms, and they also seem to have different behavioral effects, it becomes important to distinguish them and find out which is better for particular purposes, or whether we need to perhaps combine them for some purposes. What do you think?

  2. Hi Todd,

    The funny thing seems to be, indeed, that creating a third person visualization of ourselves it seems to resemble social learning (observational learning).

    It seems different mechanisms are at work with 1st person perspective visualisation and 3rd person.Like you said, several questions emerge:

    1. Which to do when? (which works best when?)
    2. Could combining the approach be beneficial?
    3. If combined will the effect be additive? (or could there even be an inhibitive effect?)

    I expect that the effect of combination will usually be additive (or always?). I can't think of an answer to question 1.

    Anyone any ideas?

  3. Maybe representations that could end up as being categorized as success in something or success at something could benefit from 3rd person perspective while actions that are just repetitions of habitual things could benefit from 1st person perspective.

    I think this might be true because we want things to stay the same. The same is equated most of the time with safe even if in actuality it isn't.

    Changing or better said, succeeding in changing something involves the possibility of failure. Rehearsing something that might fail might be scary so this is why it might be easier to visualize you as someone distinct from you (identify with the observer).

  4. My first cut at this is that we might be dealing with mechanisms for social imitation vs. skill aquisition. The data so far show that 3rd person imagination increases the likelihood of response, not the accuracy of response.

    The putative reason for emphasizing an embodied mindset in skill rehearsal is to simulate kinesthetic feedback and as realistic as possible a simulation of the sensory and affective environment for performing the skill.

    So if these are true, then it would make more sense to focus on the 1st person perspective when you are trying to develop precise skills, and the 3rd person perspective when you have adequate established skills and want to reinforce that they are performed under the desired conditions.

    That would mean separating skill aquisition and skill "transfer," which I think may be a somewhat novel approach to most programs.

  5. Hi Peter, thanks. I have no idea whether that is true, but it is an interesting hypothesis

  6. Hi Todd,

    Very interesting thought:

    1st person: precision improvement
    3rd person: applying skill in target situation


  7. Todd's point is excellent. Cnsider the activation advantage: we increase our motivation to try something by a third party perspective. If I imagine others cheering me as I finish, say, a fifty mile walk (JFK, 1963 and his challenge), and see myself walking across the finish line from others' perspective, am I more likely to start to train? I think so.

  8. Fully agree Lynn, I think Todd's explanation is right on the mark.

  9. Lynn, thanks for your comments! Are you the same LJ that I remember from Howard Bloom's PaleoPsych list? If so, how wonderful to come across you again! Else, how wonderful to meet you!

    BTW, can you tell I spent my childhood writing computer programs? :)

  10. Todd, I do recall you from the Paleopsych list! And I did like what you said. Thanks for the acknowledgement.

  11. Lisa Libby's work is very interesting. Another of her papers would seem to confirm Todd's interpretation. A first-person perspective tends to orient one towards the concrete and sensory-emotional aspects of past or present visualisations (focus on 'how'). A third-person perspective tends to orient one towards the more abstract, contextualised aspects (focus on 'why').

    There's also an interesting study on the effect of visual perspective on regret for past events.

    You might also want to look up the work of Gabrielle Oettingen. She discovered that a combination of positive visualisation about the beneficial results of achieving your goal, and more concrete visualisations about problems that might get in the way and how you would deal with them, were particularly effective in developing motivation that led to action. I suspect that if you visualise the former from third-person and the latter from first-person this might enhance the effect.

    Oettingen et al. (2001) Self-regulation of goal setting: turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 736-753.



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