Imagining yourself in the third person—as if through someone else’s eyes—can derail efforts to improve your health, research suggests.
The findings, published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology, are counter to existing research showing people are more likely to succeed when they see themselves from an observer’s perspective, rather than through their own eyes.
Third-person visualization works well for short-term goals with defined steps, such as voting or a class assignment, says Beatriz Pereira, assistant professor of marketing in Iowa State University’s Ivy College of Business. However, for long-term goals without a specific endpoint or steps, this perspective makes it harder to overcome negative emotions if you are struggling to achieve the goal.
“A third-person perspective reduces implemental thinking, which is key to see the concrete steps necessary to attain these goals. If we find it hard to see how to stay on track or make progress, we may experience negative emotions and give up on the goal,” Pereira says. “However, if we see the goal as central to who we are as a person, it can help us ignore those negative feelings.”
Which granola bar?
Some weight loss and diet programs use visualization strategies to help consumers reach their health goals, Pereira says. That is why Pereira and colleagues decided to test these strategies in an effort to improve consumer well-being.
They conducted a series of experiments to investigate when, how, and why visual perspectives affect health goals. In one study, participants considered the goal of reducing sugar in their diet. They imagined themselves buying a granola bar in the first- or third-person perspective and later selected one bar to take home. Participants who did not see the goal as central to their self-concept and who adopted a third-person perspective chose granola bars with more sugar.
In another study with participants who were pursuing a weight loss goal, they found a third-person perspective negatively influenced expectations about future behavior. That’s because it decreases implemental thoughts (steps about how to achieve the goal), produces negative self-conscious emotions, and decreases intentions when the goal plays a relatively minor role in defining who one is as a person.
Careful with the third-person perspective
A health goal such as losing weight or improving physical fitness can be particularly challenging because there are multiple ways of achieving the goal and it requires an ongoing commitment, Pereira says. Based on the study results, she and her colleagues suggest consumers and health-related programs avoid or use third-person perspectives carefully.
Pereira says consumers may benefit from using a third-person perspective if they break down long-term goals into smaller pieces. For example, if your goal is to lose 25 pounds, start by creating daily or weekly meal goals.
“If you have too much freedom in how you achieve the goals, that’s when hurdles start appearing. Small goals are often easier to accomplish and give you a definite endpoint,” Pereira says. “We also suggest incorporating the goal into your self-concept, so critical thoughts and feelings don’t prevent you from achieving your goal.”
Source: Iowa State University