I recently spoke to a close acquaintance about his plans to expand his business. He had these grand ideas, more than what would be considered normal for a business of its size, and proceeded to ask me on specific information concerning particulars that I had had experience dealing with. At some point during the call, he mentioned that it is probably not a very good idea to keep planning and never quite successfully implementing the said plans. This was after an hour long phone call when he painted a rather beautiful picture of his future growth and was convinced, or he at least sounded so, that this golden path was the ultimate Eureka moment. It then hit me..
This time science had my back. To quote:
Positive fantasies that idealize the future are found to be inversely
related to achievement over time: the more positively the fantasies
are experienced, the less effort do people invest in realizing these
fantasies, and the lower is their success in achieving them. 1
Once you really think about it, it makes sense. Our brains aren’t quite good and differentiating between ‘real’ and fantasy. It’s the reason why people can act convincingly by portraying emotions that aren’t driven by their current situation, hallucinate, become anxious and a whole lot of situations. William James suggested: “Everyone knows the difference between imagining a thing and believing in its existence, between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth” (p. 283). To go back to my story, the person I was speaking to believed that his business was going in that direction. Scratch that, he believed that his organization was in that position by just thinking about the plans and throwing the ideas around. This wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.
There is a well written paper on the difference between expectations and fantasies. In short:
These studies suggest that there might be two forms of
thinking about the future with different effects on motivation
and performance. More specifically, beliefs about the future
(expectations) should be differentiated from images (fantasies)
depicting future events. 2
Here is where brains become confused. It has been proven time3 and time again that brains ‘get off’ equally from fantasies in comparison to reality. It is not surprising that an hour long talk on fantasies is compared to a mental massage. Most of the time, these events feel real because someone else is sharing the same fantasy hence empowering the images further.
Why are fantasies dangerous? They allow us to believe we achieved success here and now without fully comprehending the bigger picture. They distort the plan (expectations) into an incomplete picture. Even worse, fantasies can easily convince one that the goals have finally been achieved. In this study there were experiments consisting romantic crush, academic grades, and career choices, all measuring the effect between fantasies and expectations. In every single one of them expectations came out on top. Fantasies led to poor outcomes that resulted from low motivation. In other words, your brain mistakes you for having achieved the fantasy by just thinking about it. After all, it gets its fix cheaper and quicker that way.
What happened to my acquaintance and his business plan? I still havent heard from him despite being reassured that the plan was flawless (and it genuinely sounded so).
1 Heather Barry Kappes & Gabriele Oettingen, Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy, 2011
2 Gabriele Oettingen & Doris Mayer, The Motivating Function of Thinking About the Future: Expectations Versus Fantasies, 2002
3 Andrea Kuszewski, The Neurological Orgasm, 2010