Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Jackie Andrade and Jon May on imagination, lemons and Functional Imagery Training

Welcome to our last blog of 2018.  I’d like to thank you for joining me on this journey over the year and for your support and enthusiasm. Jackie Andrade is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Plymouth whose work focuses on imagination and how we can imagine different futures for ourselves and use that to help change our behaviour. Jon May is also a Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth and his work also focuses on imagination and how it affects decision making, motivation and creativity. Over the last 20 years they have developed an approach called Functional Imagery Training which has many insights to offer to our exploration of imagination and its ability to change the real world around us.  I took the train to Plymouth and we sat in Jackie’s office and had a fascinating conversation that, as Jackie later put it after reviewing the transcript, is “almost a whole manifesto for behaviour change”.  I started by asking them to get us an outline of Functional Imagery Training. What is it, and what does their research tell us about how it works?

Jackie: Functional Imagery Training (FIT) is a counselling technique that we’ve developed over the last twenty years based on our research on desire that started with desire for drugs and junk food and so on, and then moved on to the question of, “How could we create cravings for healthy activities that people say they want to do but never quite feel like doing?”  FIT grew out of that, and essentially it means enlisting from clients what it is they want to do, what ideas they’ve got about how to set about it, and then guiding them through their own mental imagery exercises to strengthen their desire.  Not only for the end goal of being thinner or having more physical activity, but also of the behaviours they need to do to get there, which might not be intrinsically pleasurable.

Jon: What we’re trying to do is tackle the paradox that people often say they want to do things, and they really do want to do things – so they really do want to drink less, stop smoking, lose weight – but their behaviour isn’t consistent with that.  When they’re faced with a choice, a temptation, they make the wrong one.  They make the one that has the short term benefits of having a biscuit or a cake or a cigarette or a drink, that they can easily imagine how nice that would be, and they don’t take into account their longer-term goal, that they equally strongly desire if you ask them, but that’s harder for them to imagine the benefits of not having the biscuit, not having a drink, not having a cigarette.

Jackie:  Most approaches are all about giving stuff up, which is never pleasant.

Jon: Yeah, the negative aspects of it.

Jackie: It’s very hard to imagine not having something and have that be pleasant.  So with FIT, we want people in that situation where say they’ve just got home from work and they’re thinking, “Oh, a cup of tea and a biscuit would be really nice.”  We want that image of, “No, it was lovely outside, I’m going to go out for a run and I’ll feel great while I’m doing that.”  We want that image to come to mind much more readily, so it’s not about, “Oh, I oughtn’t to have the biscuit, because I’m trying to be healthier.”  It’s about, “No, there’s this other thing that I really want to do instead.”


I love the lemon exercise you do…

Jackie:  That’s right.  It’s part of our weight loss study but we use the lemon for all sorts of purposes.

Jon:  We didn’t make it up.  It’s a standard thing that some of our colleagues have done who also work on imagery.

Jackie:  But the good thing about the lemon exercise is it shows people that imagery can be multisensory and can feel like something as well as just be a picture in your head.  We ask people to imagine holding a lemon and noticing how it looks and then throw it up in the air and catch it, and cut it in half and listen to the juice trickling into a glass, and then some of it squirts in your eye.  Often we notice people wince or blink at that point.  It takes longer than that, but it helps people work in all the different senses.

Jon:  People are often surprised that they did have a physical reaction to something that they were imagining.  The point of that is to show that imagery is real in a sense.  It’s there in your mind just as all of your other perceptions, and you respond to it.

Jackie:  It’s linked with your emotions.

Jon:  When we’re then encouraging them to imagine doing things and imagine feeling things, that will follow on from behaviours they make, it gives it more bite, more reality, and more emotional feel.

Jackie:  With the physical activity example, somebody might intuitively imagine going for a run and just picture themselves looking sweaty and out of breath or bored or something.  We want to help them imagine how it’s going to feel when they’re noticing if the birds are singing and they’re noticing their body feeling a bit more toned, and noticing how it actually gets easier after a while when you’re warmed up.  Or if then already for anything of that stuff to happen, noticing how nice it is going back into work after having had a shower and feeling like you’ve done something.  You’ve got that sense of achievement.  And for a lot of people it’s that.  It’s that achievement and control and success if they feel like their life’s been getting a bit out of hand.

Jon:  It gives people the confidence that they can actually do these little acts one at a time that add up to the goal they really want to achieve that previously they thought was a long way in the future.  They can see that they’re doing it day by day.

Could you talk a bit about the results from it, or the impacts of it?

Jackie:  The weight loss trial is the first big trial that we’ve done of FIT.  We compared it with another counselling technique called Motivational Interviewing which is very well established.  What we found was that over six months, where people had up to four hours of therapist contact time, which is very little, in that six months, people lost four kilos in the FIT group, and about one in the control group.  But the really exciting thing was in the next six months, where they had no contact from us at all, people continued losing weight in the FIT condition, which is pretty much unheard of in weight loss trials.

Typically people regain 50% of the weight that they’ve lost.  They don’t usually keep losing it.  So that supported our approach where we train people to be their own therapist.  We show them how to do this imagery, we give them plenty of reminders early on.  And generally after a year, people were hardly aware that they were doing it.  It had just become the way they thought about things.

Jon:  It’s important that we’re not giving them a diet.  We’re not telling them what to do.  They’re all doing different things.  Some people are following one way of eating less or exercising more.  Other people are doing other things.  All we’re doing is helping them be motivated to do those things and to keep on towards their long-term goal.  We’ve done it in other areas as well.  Weight loss is a big success for us, and one we’ve recently published, but we’ve also been working with elite athletes who have a problem that they all really want to be successful in their particular sport, but every athlete loses occasionally, or has an injury, or can’t beat their personal best for a few months or something.

Jackie:  Or gets anxious…

Jon:  Or gets anxious about it.  And the ones who do succeed are the ones who can get through that.  So that’s called resilience.  Being able to take the knocks and carry on.  In a similar way we’ve been working with these sports people to help them focus on their long-term goals and not worry too much about the setbacks.  Again, they all do it differently.  They all have different things that they’re worried about.  A footballer might be really anxious about being substituted in the second half of every match or something.  We can work with them on that.  Another one might hate taking free kicks or penalties or something.  And we can help them imagining getting better at that, and how it would feel for them.

Jackie: Although you said working on the long-term goals, and that is obviously what we want to help people achieve, the focus of FIT is very much on building the desire for the steps.  Rather than just goal setting, which lots of behaviour change strategies do, we’re focusing on finding what would feel good about playing well today, or changing your focus.  Instead of worrying about x, focusing on y instead.  I think it’s that short-term imagery that really makes a difference, because it makes people want today to be a good day, rather than thinking, “Oh, I’ll be glad when today’s over and then I can start working on my long-term goal.”

There’s different research I’ve found about the research about the people who learned to play the piano, and some of them imagined learning to play the piano, and the other half actually practiced piano.  And they’re pretty much as good.  Or the ones where people imagine exercising a muscle.

Jon:  That’s where a lot of the research on imagery and performance has been.  Imagined rehearsal against actual rehearsal.  And especially in the sports area where you might get people to imagine putting as opposed to…

Jackie:  It tends to work with physical skills.

Jon:  That’s focusing on actually doing the activity, rather than the reasons why you want to do it, which is more where we’re focused.

But what do we know about why it works?

Jackie:  Because we see imagery is something that’s embodied.  When you imagine taking a bite of the lemon, it makes you salivate.  If it squirts in your eye, it makes you physically blink.  But even if you don’t do it physically, it’s activating.  It’s getting the muscles to do that. In studies where people have been asked to respond to words, either with their hand or their foot, if the word ‘kick’ is shown, people will be relatively faster to respond with their foot than if the word grab is shown for instance.

Jon:  But it also primes your perception for things as well.  If you’re imagining where an object is going to go, and then it moves, you can anticipate that and interact with it faster and more accurately.

Jackie:  Similarly, if you’re thinking, “I ought to go for a run but I feel really tired” and you’re paying attention to how tired you feel, the running will be less pleasurable.  Whereas if you’re thinking, because you’ve been guided through an image that it might be like this, that when you go for a run, your body is going to feel more alive, the birds will be singing, you’ll notice the coolness of the air on your skin or something, then you’re noticing those things more than you would otherwise.  So although imagery is a skill that almost everybody has, we don’t use it to its full.

But the other thing with imagery is that it is very closely linked with emotion, as I think we’ve already said.  I do this sometimes with students in a lecture.  Say, “Imagine you’re in the shower.  And you’re naked, water’s falling on your skin, and suddenly you notice something bigger and heavier fall on the back of your neck, and you realise that it’s a spider that’s dropped down from the ceiling.”  You always get a few people wince or squeal or shout out.  And even if they don’t react like that, a lot of people feel the hairs on the back of their neck rise up if they don’t particularly like spiders.

Those emotions, you imagine being happy or feeling sad, you actually feel some of that happiness and sadness.  In a way that you don’t when you’re just talking about things.

And what’s happening in the brain when that’s going on?

Jackie:  A lot of the areas that are involved in sensory perception are active.

So if someone talks about a hot cinnamon croissant or something, is there even such a thing? 

Jon:  There are.

Then bits of the brain that smell fire up when we talk about things that smell really nice?

Jackie:  Absolutely.  Yeah, yeah.

Jon:  Yes, I mean what is the difference, really, in your mind between experiencing something through the senses, and building that representation through mental imagery?  Even our sensory perception relies a lot on memory in order to work out what the sensory information is.  We think we see the world around us because our eyes are getting a picture on our retina, but that’s not how vision works at all.  The actual sensory information is very, very impoverished, and is limited to a very narrow area in the centre of our vision, and the rest of it is essentially built from memory.

Jackie:  So sitting across the table from you, I don’t see you as a person without legs.  Because I know…

Jon:  Which is what the sensory information is.

Jackie:  Which is what I can see.  I can only see the top half of you, but actually I see a whole person.

Jon:  And as the vision moves away from the centre of the point you’re looking at, we lose all colour information and it becomes essentially a black and white image, and yet our experience is of a full colour environment, because we’re building that in to our internal representations using the knowledge that things don’t change colour just because you’re not looking at them anymore.  So our actual day to day experience of the world is constructed.

It’s things that psychologists tell each other and take for granted, but even we still think that we see things that we’re looking at, and hearing things in the world.  How on earth we manage to hear things.  If you think about the physical processes that have to go on to turn something that creates a sound, and transmits a sound through the air and hits your ear drums, and vibrates hairs.  How on earth that becomes a perception of a sound.

Jackie:  And of individual words as well.  When actually if you look at the sound waves emitted when somebody is speaking, you can’t visually tell where one end stops and the next one starts.

Jon:  To go back to an exercise, if I wobble my tongue and exhale and say lemon, there’s a picture of a lemon in your mind.  There’s no lemons in the room.  Why is there?  That lemon is constructed in the same way as if I actually had a lemon here and took it away again.  It’s no longer here.  You sensed it briefly.  It’s the same thing that’s in your mind.  The mind is an extremely powerful organ and we’re really utilising that power to bring what people can imagine happening in the future, to make that real.

Jackie:  You asked me the question before Jon got here about how we could make people imagine or make people more creative or use their imaginations better?  I was just thinking that I think one of the problems is we don’t have to use it very much.  It would be good if we used imagination more, but we live in such rich environments, it’s not like we’re out on the plains trying to predict where a herd of wildebeest might be that we can hunt or something.

Actually we can see and hear and feel stuff all around us all the time, and it’s changing quickly.  Even more so now with mobile phones and everything.  We have access to so much information that we’ve almost got out of the habit of having to think ahead.

Jon:  But helping people imagine things more creatively is actually something we’ve just finished a long three year project with some dance students, where we were helping them to become more creative in their choreography in their contemporary dance.  By showing them how to use their imagery, by giving them the confidence that they could actually take control of what they were thinking about and drive it in different directions to make more novel ideas.  Because part of what makes it difficult for people to be creative is that often the first things that come to mind are pretty ordinary.

Your mind, in order to do all of this reconstruction about the world, and so on, it benefits from coming up with the most frequent or common ideas, because those are the ones that are most likely to be correct, or to be what you’re seeing.  If you want to be creative, you’ve got to come up with the less common or less predictable ideas.  So we developed a series of workshops to take these students through where they played with manipulating their mental images.  We could show them that if they were imagining someone in a hat for example, they could make that person disappear into the distance or become very tall and thin, or their hat could spin round on their head.

They can actually do these things in their minds eye, if you like.  Then we showed them how to link visual imagery with sound imagery, so that you could imagine – if you take a hat again, you can imagine dropping the hat and it making a metallic ringing sound, or making a dull thud.  And that changes the way that you react to the hat.  This might sound like silly games, but this is what’s going on in the mind of a dancer when they’re trying to create some movement and come up with ways of reacting to other dancers or to the movements they’ve just done.

We developed these workshops and gave these workshops to first year dance students as part of their curriculum.  Then we tested them in their second year, so the year after they’d had the workshops, and we looked at the assessments their dance teachers had made of their choreographic exercises, as part of their degrees, and the group who had had these exercise did actually improve more in their creative thinking, both on pencil and paper tests that were unrelated to dance, and in their teachers’ assessments of their creativity and novelty.

We can, we think, improve people’s creativity by giving them awareness of the skills that they already have.  We call it meta-cognitive awareness, if you like.  They’re aware of what they can do, and so we can encourage them to do it more, and give them the belief that they can manipulate images in novel ways in their mind’s eye.

Do you find in the FIT stuff that some people who you do it with are more able to do it than others, and what factors do we know of that inhibit, or lesson people’s abilities to be imaginative?

Jackie:  There is a sizeable minority of people who say they don’t have imagery.  Of those, a lot have imagery in senses that aren’t visual.  So somebody who struggles to picture a scene very vividly may well still be able to imagine what it feels like to catch a lemon or to smell a lemon.  Even with people who say they have no imagery at all in any modality, in that situation we change the language we use. Instead of saying, “Imagine” which just makes you think, “No, I can’t do that.  I’m just going to sit here blank.”  Instead we say, “So we want you to think through what steps you’re going to take today to work on your goal.  Think about what the scene looks like that you’re in, and think about anything you can hear or smell.  Think about how you’re going to feel while you’re doing it.  Think about how good it feels to succeed.”

Even though we’re not telling people to imagine, we’re encouraging them to use their senses.  And we haven’t tested this experimentally, but in my experience working with counsellors who struggle with imagery, that still really changes the way they think about things in a very positive way, so it becomes much more emotional and they feel much more driven to do it, do the behaviours.

Jon: What really matters is not so much that I might have more vivid imagination of this than Jackie, for example, or for you, but that my image of this is stronger than my image of that.

Jackie:  Yeah.

Jon:  Overall I might be very bad and low at vividly imagining things but as long as I’m imagining this thing more than that thing, then I will be able to use the stronger thing more in my decision making than the weaker thing.  So yeah, there are scales that try to measure how vivid you’re imagining things, but we’ve never found any real relation – and other people find it hard to find any relationships between individual differences on vividness of imagining things and any other behaviour really.

Jackie:  Including performance on imagery tasks.

Jon:  Yeah, so there is a big question as to how much it’s your perception of your vividness.  Really, I can’t tell how vivid your imagination is.  So it doesn’t really matter to me how vividly you’re able to imagine things.  What matters is internally relatively how strongly I can imagine different things in my own head.

I know there’s big debates it seems about whether you can measure how imaginative people are.  It seems to be there’s lots of debates around different approaches and different ways.  Is it possible?  Is it even worth bothering?  Is there any approaches to that that are worth looking at?

Jackie:  I guess if you’re selecting somebody for a creative job you want somebody who you can say, “Yes, this person’s creative” but in terms of getting individuals to change In a way that makes them happier or meets society’s goals, or whatever, I think it’s more a matter of showing people how they can use their imagery more effectively.

I wanted to come back to what Jon said about meta-cognition, because we use an exercise in FIT for people who say that they think they would be able to change if it wasn’t for the cravings they have for drugs or for chocolate, or crisps, or whatever.  We do a little exercise called ‘cravings buster’ just to show people that cravings are under their control.  Now we know that trying to suppress them is counter-productive.  It’s like trying not to think about white elephants.  It just comes to mind straightaway if you do that.

A lot of people advocate ‘surfing the urge’.  You just go with it until the craving goes away.  But that takes a level of motivation to stick with it until it’s gone.  So instead, when the people we’re working with have got an image of how they’re going to work on their goal and how good it’s going to feel to have lost that weight or run that marathon or whatever, we then say, “Just for a little while, I want you to bring to mind the crisps that you have cravings for, and imagine opening the packet, and the smell, and taking a bite of one and what it tastes like.  Make it as vivid as you can.

Now switch your attention to that goal image and imagine getting on the final lap of the race and how good you feel.  You know you’ve almost succeeded.  And make that as vivid as you can.”  Then we say, “And what happened to the crisps?”  And people say, “Oh, I don’t know.  They just went.”  And that’s really important to know that you have that control over the cravings, because when you’re experiencing a craving, say for a cigarette when you’re just starting to quit, it feels to people like it’s going to go on for ever and it’s going to get worse and worse and worse until they give in.  ]

Actually having a little bit of training that as long as you know what to divert your mind to, that you can do it very effectively and the cravings will go away, can be useful, and it can build your confidence that you can cope with these things.

Jon:  To get back to what you were saying about selecting people who are more imaginative, or helping people become more imaginative, there’s many different aspects to being creative.  Yes, you’ve got to come up with the wacky ideas and if you have a team of creative people you want them to come up with novel, wacky ideas, but you want them to do more than that, as well.  Just being wacky is not going to solve the task.

You’ve also got to work out which of these wacky ideas are worth pursuing.  Which ones can actually help.  There’s really two steps there.  You’ve got to come up with the strange, the unusual, and then you’ve got to do the selection, identifying which of these are worth pursuing, developing.  You’ve got to be both open-minded, and exploring all sorts of possibilities uncritically, and then you’ve got to be able to almost rapidly work out which ones to become very focused on, to turn those into successful ideas.  And you need both of those skills.

Now it might be in a team you’ve got one person who’s really good with coming up with wackiness and the other person who’s very good at saying, “No, no, no, no, ooh, yes.  What did you just say?”  Then can develop the idea.  Or it might be that you can get both of those skills in one person, so that they can be quickly thinking, “No, no, maybe this, maybe that, oh, that, oh hang on, how about this?”  That’s what you really need.  It’s juggling both of those abilities that you really need to be creative.

Jackie:  Also, that’s exactly what we’re doing in science.  When you’re talking about what society can do to improve creativity, the focus shouldn’t just be on things that are traditionally thought of as being imaginative.  Improving science education so it moves away from learning facts and more towards science is our way of dealing with uncertainty, and dealing with unknowns and trying to work out what the world would be like if…  it’s really important that society doesn’t think there’s a subset of people who are creative and then there’s just everybody else.

In the paper that I read, you wrote that, “FIT works by providing the individual with personally salient vivid visual images of their desire to achieve a goal that will be triggered by episodes of temptation inconsistent with that goal.”  If there are learnings from that that we could apply to what we were talking about before about how we might help society to imagine a different future, what are the learnings about when we seem to be at the moment stuck in this space of the IPPC saying we’ve got to reimagine everything and it’s just not happening.

Jackie:  On an individual level, which is obviously expensive to do, but that’s what we’ve been doing, it’s working one to one with people, it’s about changing the narrative away from, “Oh, I oughtn’t to be doing that” to “Actually if I did this, it’ll be really good.”  So we recently bought an electric car for the first time.  I don’t particularly like cars, but one of the things I’ve noticed is that when you get out of it, it doesn’t smell like our old diesel car does.

Now I’ve noticed it, I think, “Oh, that’s really nice.  That adds to the experience of driving it”.  But sometimes it’s helping people notice things and I think the problem with climate change is people don’t really know what it’s going to be like.  Or even they think positive things, “Oh, we’re going to have more warm summers” without being able to see how that affects the world that they live in, because it’s such a big question.

Jon:  The focus is, “We’ve got to stop doing this.  We’ve got to stop doing that.  You’ve got to not have plastic bags.  You’ve got to not have fossil fuels.”  No one is saying what you should do.  Well, they are saying some things you should do, but not focusing on how your life is going to be better if you do this, other than the polar bears won’t all die.  Which is too remote and unpleasant a thing to think about.  If you keep focusing on all of the scary negative things that will happen unless you change your behaviour, then people don’t like to dwell on those things.

They’ll agree with you if you’re showing them these things, but then when you’ve taken those images or ideas away, they won’t keep coming back to people popping into their heads in order to influence the decisions they make because they’re not nice to think about.

Jackie:  If people are thinking about having a holiday in Cornwall that’s close, or having a holiday in Spain that means flying there, at that moment they’re not thinking, “Polar bears” they’re thinking, “Oh, but I’d like to go to Spain”.

How can that be nudged? 

Jackie:  For me, it’s partly the storytelling aspect – that actually having a holiday in Cornwall isn’t just about the holiday.  It’s not just weighing it up, will it be sunnier in Cornwall or in Spain, but it’s about this is the type of person I am.  What I’m doing is something positive that will make a difference.  It’s that bigger story about being the sort of person, and being in the sort of world, that you want to live in.

But that’s a really hard thing to achieve because people are very bound up in these binary choices.  Do I want to go to the party with new clothes, or without new clothes, or something, and it just becomes about the clothes.  It doesn’t become about, “Do I actually need this?  Is there something better I could do with my money?”

Jon:  The trick is to identify at a societal level all of the small things you’d like people to do, and almost perhaps to unlink those from the goal of saving the planet, and to link them more to personally relevant goals.  For example, I had some students a couple of years ago, before the plastic bag ban came in, doing, “Can we help people make less use of disposable one-use plastics?”  We didn’t couch this in terms of ‘in order to cut down on marine litter’, it was just about for you, if you had a refillable bottle in your bag, how would you feel about that?  And, for each person, coming up with their own reasons why they would feel happier re-using something, rather than trying to tell them why they ought to.  It’s the same with the weight loss thing, coming back to that.  We don’t tell people how to lose weight, or why they should lose weight.  We ask them why they should.  What are their personal goals?  Because those are the ones that matter to people.

Jackie:  But also, it feels really horrible to sit there and be told that maybe you’re overweight because you’ve been eating the wrong things.  You just feel belittled and that’s demotivating.

Jon:  And maybe you’re destroying the planet because you drove your diesel car in today or whatever.

Jackie:  Whereas if you get people to talk about how they want things to be, often they know what foods…  One of our participants said, “Look, everybody knows you shouldn’t eat the whole chocolate cake.”

I guess the thing that appealed to me with the lemon thing, is it is about how we tell the stories about how it turned out okay.  How do we tell the stories about if we get through the next 20 years, and we make the changes that we have to make, it could be – the air would be better, and we’d have better parties, food would be more interesting.  The thing that I always look to is actually how veganism has changed its message.  In the 1980s, veganism was angry and black and miserable.

Jon:  It was a cranky weird thing, yeah.

Horrible.  Everybody looked really ill.  Now everyone’s really beautiful and the food’s really colourful and amazing.  And it’s not going on so much about this, that and the other happens to the cows.  It’s like, “Look at this, isn’t it interesting.  I feel great.”  It’s completely changed.

Jackie:  One of the things that we’re doing in FIT is to get people to see the broader implications.  Their goal of weight loss isn’t just about being slim.  It’s about having the energy to run around with their grandchildren.

Jon:  It’s about what they want to be slim to do.

Jackie:  I went to an interesting shop in Penarth.  My friend said, “Oh, can you just pop down to the shop.  It’s going to close at 5 o’clock, so be quick.”  I went to this shop and I wandered around, and it was typical vegan shop with interesting things on the shelves.  And it was packed.  And everybody was standing around chatting.  They weren’t shopping.

It was like, “Okay, it’s gone 5 o’clock now.  Everybody’s still here.”  I said, “What’s the story here?”  The shop owner was somebody who’d inherited quite a lot of money, or won quite a lot of money.  Wanted to do something good for the environment, and thought, right, selling environmentally friendly food is one way to go.  But then he thought, “I want to do something for the community as well, so I’ll have a shop that is a community centre, that people can come to and buy stuff, but also talk to people.  They can start by talking to me and then maybe they’ll start talking to each other.  So I won’t close the shop until everybody’s had enough.”

He saw this as his public service, and my impression as people were going to the shop because it was fun, rather than because it was local and okay it cost a bit more, but it saved getting on the bus to go to the supermarket.  That changes the narrative.  You go there because you want to do it, because it’s going to be nice, rather than because you ought to.

Jon:  Instead of just focusing on price and quality, you’ve got the whole shopping experience.  Which of course big grands do that as well.  All the major shops try and lure you into the shops by the experience of shopping there.

Jackie:  But they’re getting worse and worse at it, because they all want to sell stuff online and save costs, so they’re all closing down.  That’s something we’ve really lost and where maybe there’s most traction.

If we wanted to create visceral immersive experiences of how the future could be if it turned out ok, is there anything you might contribute from your work and your understanding that might help to make that more effective?

Jon:  Yes.  Memories of the future really is what you’re talking about.  The idea that by briefly or temporarily putting yourself in the future and thinking about what it’s like there, and then coming back to the present, that does influence the decisions that you make about your behaviour between now and the future, and how you can cope and change things in order to bring that future state about perhaps.

You’ve probably heard of the marshmallow test where you put a marshmallow in front of a child and say, “I’m just going to go out of the room and if the marshmallow’s still here, if you haven’t eaten it by the time I come back, I’ll give you two marshmallows.”  Loads of funny YouTube videos with this.

This delayed gratification as it’s called is very hard for young children to do.  It’s hard for adults to do as well, but we’ve mastered it somewhat.  But there are all sorts of clever psychological tests you can give people about saying, “Would you prefer £17 in two days, or £43 in 96 days and so on.”  There are curves of decision making where people trade off getting a reward sooner rather than a larger reward later.  By putting yourself in the future and imagining those futures, you can change your perspective and increase people’s tolerance of the delays and this has been experimentally shown that you can do this.

You’re right about that little theatre group giving this multimedia experience or whatever – that became their reality.  If you could conjure up a multi-media experience of – I’m not going to say a post-climate change world, but one where we have solved the climate change crisis, and what is it like to live in there, so if there was a very embodied, vivid, multisensory experience of being in an environment where there were lots of birds on the trees and it was pleasant to be in and there wasn’t traffic everywhere…

Jackie:  No traffic and litter.

Jon: Silent transportation things going somehow that used renewable resources and so on, where everything had been solved.

Jackie:  And people chatting.  That social aspect I think.

Jon:  And it was pleasant to be in.  And there was a wise old man who said, “Do you remember how we did this and we did that and we succeeded.”  And then you come back to real life.  You have got then the self- efficacy.  It can be done.  These were the things that were done.  It was nice when we had done it.  That’s all the same sorts of things that we’re doing with FIT in a sense.  Saying when you have lost weight, what’s it going to be like, and what did you do to get there, and how did you do it?

Jackie:  It’s linking it with the behaviours as well.

Jon:  Yeah.  All the small steps, the old man is reminding you of how you did them, and you succeeded in them as well.  It’s linked to feeling nice about it.

And it really makes me think that actually there’s a big part of that which is the multi-sensory part of it.  So that actually when you would emerge into that, what it sounds like, and what it feels like, and what it smells like, is as important as what you’re seeing.  Because a lot of those things I’ve seen before just focus purely on ‘we’re going to do visual mock-ups of what this place could be like’ or we’re going to use Photoshop to show what this place could be like, but actually, the smells and the tactile side of it are just as important.

Jackie:  But the social side as well, because people in cars are quite isolated and think, “Oh it’s fun because I’m listening to my choice of music and I haven’t got smelly people around me” or whatever.  But actually if you have that social side and people have time to sit and chat because they’re not worried about whether they’ve missed the bus or whatever because there are lots of buses and it’s relaxed and friendly and fun, it stops being about just practical experiences and starts being more emotionally about, “Yeah, this is the person I want to be.  I want to be in a nice clean environment where people trust each other and are friendly.  And I don’t have to worry that I’m doing something damaging just because it’s quick and easy.”

Jon:  I wonder if it would help if you take people and say, “Right, you know what it’s like living in the start of the 21st century.  We take all these things for granted.  What we can currently do and all the facilities we have, and all the knowledge we have.”  Imagine you’re living in 1643, or 1589, and there’s plagues.

Shit everywhere.

Jon:  Shit everywhere.  The only fuel is wood and coal, and so on.  But you still know everything from 500, 600 years in the future.  What are you going to do?  How are you going to make people’s lives better?  And think about what changes could you make?  Obviously you couldn’t – you might not want to – but you couldn’t go and get loads of petrol and diesel because the resources you’d need to get that out would be impossible.

You couldn’t build a computer because you haven’t got the electricity or the silicon engineering to do it.  The microchips and so on.  But you could still do things.  You could train people to wash their hands before cutting into people or something.  You could make some small changes that would have huge benefits.  Maybe by getting people to think about how they could use their existing knowledge to bring about change of a small scale level might help them think about what they could do now to bring about small change personally that would have big consequences.

The futurist Stuart Candy at Carnegie Melon University does these events where they create visceral experiences of the future.  So you go to a particular place, which they’ve taken over, and you go through four different half hour immersive things.  So in one of them you go into, for example, a room where it’s 2050 and corporations are allowed to run for governments.  So you’re basically listening to an election hustings between four different corporations who are basically saying why you should vote for Coca Cola rather than whatever.  Then in another one, they’ve got one where they’ve reimagined – it was in Hawaii, so they’ve reimagined the economy of Hawaii so it’s all about local resources.  They immerse people into the horrible versions of the future as well as the into the positive visions of the future.  From your work and your perspective, is it good to get people to visualise both?  Or to focus on the positive ones?

Jackie:  At the very start of FIT we’ll ask people to imagine a specific time in the future – say, their next birthday – and how things are if nothing has changed.  That’s the only point where we do any negative imagery.  We do it so that it’s an anchor point for the next one, which is, “Now, imagine that same point where something has changed.  It doesn’t matter how you change but you’ve got where you want to be.  What are things like?  Notice the things you hope would get better actually are better.”

We do that to have that contrast.  That sounds very clever, to have the negative future of how bad things could be if we don’t get a grip on them, and then you appreciate the positive one even more so, because it’s not comparing it with how things are now.  Because the problem is, how things are now, is then not brilliant, but we’re not changing, and they will get worse, so actually having that vision of how they get worse… but you can’t have it on its own because people just don’t want to think about it.

Our whole focus is on positive imagery and imagining what will feel good about making a start, not, “If I eat less for a whole week I still won’t have lost any weight and I’ll just be really miserable” but actually, “If I have this nice salad, it’s going to look beautiful, it’s going to taste really good and I’m going to feel good that I’ve made a start.”  That positive focus is necessary because we want people to keep doing this for themselves, to keep thinking about it, and people don’t keep thinking about negative things.  They put it out of mind when they’ve got other stuff to get on with.  Whereas we want those positive thoughts of, “Oh, I’m going to go for a run next.  It’s going to feel great” to keep popping into people’s minds.


  1. Hörstel Kristian
    December 19, 2018

    Nice example is also the order: “Dont think about an blue elefant.” It`s an example of imagination of Dr. Hirschhausen from Germany. You can´t ignore the question and you must think about an blue elefant although there is no blue elefant on earth. The imiagination takes it, combined it and ignored the order not to think about it. Just brilliant a thing.

  2. Kitty de Bruin
    December 31, 2018

    FIT for resilience, i like that, and i know that mental sport trainers are using the same technique, imagine the good result first. At the TT training ( 2010) in the Netherlands they also used the projection in the future what do you see, smell, see , what is different? Nice interview and inspiring to to integrate that more in TT training

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