September 26, 2009

59 seconds- Think a little Change a lot

Richard Wiseman, professor for The Public Understanding of Psychology University of Hertfordshire in the UK has written a self-help book which is research based, pleasant and easy to read and practical. It's called 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot (Borzoi Books). Wiseman started out as a magician and later became a psychologist. Just like many famous magicians like James Randi and Derren Brown, he has a very skeptical and research based approach and a great skill at involving and entertaining the public. The purpose of this was to expose popular self-help myths and replace them by practical and brief self-help approaches that have been proven effective.
The book covers topics like decision making, dealing with stress, happiness, relationships, and parenting. The research covered in the book, which balances classical studies well with recent studies, is presented in an accessible and sometimes very funny way. SF is not mentioned in the book but some of the research is relevant for SF. One example is a study by Pham and Taylor (1999) on motivation. These researchers had participants in the experimental condition visualize a doing exceptionally well in their exams that were coming up. Students in the control conditions were asked to visualize themselves while doing the exams but doing normally, not exceptionally well. Although the intervention lasted very briefly, the effect was strong. Students in the experimental condition had felt good during the visualization but studied less hard and reached lower marks. Wiseman comments that visualizing a perfect future may make you feel better, it is a form of mental escapism which has the negative side effect of leaving you unprepared for difficulties that crop up on the ‘rocky road’ to success. Wiseman concludes: “Fantasizing about heaven on earth may put a smile on your face, but is unlikely to help transform your dreams into reality.”
This research confirms that as SF practitioners we should probably refrain from asking people what their ideal situation looks like, what their ‘best’ hopes would be, and what their perfect futures would look like. Instead, we’d better ask them to describe situations, futures and hopes that would be ‘good enough’. Apart from this example the book contains much interesting material. Although some SF practitioners may object to the traditional psychology approach of this book, many will probably like it if only for its focus on brief interventions and the pleasantness of the writing.


  1. Interesting. Some very good points.

    "Dream Big," "Imagine the optimal solution," and "picture a good enough solution" are three different strategies that are all emphasized in different approaches. I'm not sure I agree with the implication that we need to pick one and reject the others, but I think we should definitely be careful of the tradeoffs.

    True, dreaming big is more inspirational than practical, but inspiration can be very important sometimes. Even when we do manage to achieve that big dream, it is usually not what we originally thought it was.

    Imagining the optimal vs, imagining the good enough is a big topic and I tend to agree with the satisficing approach in general, although there are specific well-defined situations where optimization is a very useful approach.

    So I agree, I would come down in general in favor of satisficing or "good enough" solution framing with the provision that we don't neglect the motivational value of dreams and the precision power of optimization.

  2. Hi Todd, thanks. Do you have some more information or hypotheses on which strategy would be most appropriate in which situation?

  3. Hi Coert, interesting question. That's one of the things I've been most curious about myself ever since I first read about the satisficing concept from Herbert Simon's writings. What classes of problems lend themselves best to optimization vs. satisficing. And when do we choose to satifice, vs. when is it really the best approach.

    Most likely it is a personality x environment interaction. People probably prefer satisficing approaches to different degrees. Some of us are notoriously perfectionistic, or are obsessed with precision, and for some these traits work well with optimization approaches because they find or create niches for themselves that favor those approaches. It's partly a matter of surrounding yourself with problems that you are already good at solving.

    Still, there are probably some heuristics that could help us choose one approach vs. the other. Let me think about it for a bit.

  4. Hi Todd,

    To summarize, there are decision making/problem solving strategies:

    1. maximizing
    2. optimizing
    3. satisficing

    Question, does this represent accurately the distinction between visualizing an ideal situation versus visualizing a situation which is good enough? I am not really sure.

    As I learn from this page, optimizing and satisficing are not too different (satisficing is optimization where all costs, including the cost of the optimization calculations themselves and the cost of getting information for use in those calculations, are considered).

    My question was: which approach works best when? Your hypothesis was that it not only depends on situational factors but also on personality factors.

    To me it seems logical that a preference for either maximizing or optimizing/statisficing would depend at least partly on personality differences. But does the suitability in outcome terms also?

    I think dreaming big, visualizing an ideal state may seem attractive but I am skeptical whether it is also effective. Wiseman's research seems to support my skepsis. (true?). Is there any evidence in favor of the 'visualizing an ideal situation' strategy?


  5. Great points.

    I agree, satisficing and optimization are equivalent if you are taking costs of optimization and information gathering into consideration.

    That's not a trivial difference however, since those costs are often not obvious. Deciding when to stop gathering information and come to closure or when to gather more information are things that do seem to have a personality dimension.

    As for dreaming big, my guess is that if it has a real advantage, it is in crossing some motivational threshold so that something seems worthwhile in spite of costs and risks and helps us persist. Realistic goals aren't always motivating enough to get us to take bold action. That's my thinking, anyway, maybe I've got it twisted?

  6. Hi Todd, thank you again.

    I agree with you on the optimizing/satisficing difference. The difference can be small but also be very large.

    As for the diffential motivational effects of ideal versus good enough, I think what you say sounds reasonable but I don't know if it avtually does not work the other way around in real life.

    In solution-focused practice we often ask people to visualize ext steps forward and situations slightly better than the one they're in now. The effects often seems to be that it sets them in motion by lowering a threshold. While they can be overwhelmed by a gap they may experience between their current situation and an ideal situation (which can make them feel hopeless) this slightly better type of visualization (or a good enough visualization)can give them hope ("this seems like something I might actually be able to do.")

    I'd be interested to find more evidence, what about you?

  7. Maybe the situation is a bit more complex thank i pictured it just now and we should look at 1) attractiveness and 2) feasibility as determinants of motivation

    Ideal sits would score low on 2 but high on 1

    good enough would be the opposite

  8. Interesting. Is it possible that it comes down to what the obstacle is? If the obstacle is that the challenge seems too great, then a small realizable step is motivating. Plus, that type of step allows you to take advantage of implementation intentions in automatizing the response (e.g. as in Gollwitzer: ).

    Still, if the obstacle is that the goal isn't compelling, then is it possible that a grander goal might sometimes be more motivating? That's the special case I'm wondering about.

  9. very interesting, seems like we're getting somewhere. again, I wonder if there's any research that has tested this kind of thinking

  10. I'm thinking that goal setting is not a simple thing, there are different kinds of goals that need to be distinguished because they play different roles in motivating and organizing behavior.

    For one thing, goal setting can be carried too far and become a negative rather than positive factor under some conditions.

    Second, as in the previous post, implementation intentions are important ways that goals are achieved and should be distinguished from goals.

    Third, there's a lot of research on the ways that we become attached to and pursue abstract ideals or "visions." And there's the concept that "big, hairy, audacious" goals drive long term change in organizations.

    I guess the distinction here may be between big ideas that inspire us and provide a bold but still realistic big picture target, and specifics that help us attain the next step.

    Some additional considerations:

  11. Coert,

    One of the findings Wiseman reported was that people who visualized themselves studying did better on an exam and studied more effectively than people who visualized themselves getting a good score.

    Seeing positive fantasies only caused people to work less hard. Seeing process caused people to work harder and longer and get a higher score.

  12. Hi Rodney, exactly. I find that finding fascinating


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner