Can Imagination Improve Performance?

“There's a force in the universe that makes things happen; all you have to do is get in touch with it. Just let things happen...and be...the ball.” – Ty Webb

We laughed when Chevy Chase’s character offered that nugget of wisdom to Danny the caddy in the movie Caddyshack. But is there any real-world truth to Ty’s belief that if we imagine it, it will happen? Two psychologists think so.

In a study featured in Psychological Science, Washington University psychologists Christopher Davoli and Richard Abrams suggest that the imagination may be more effective than we think in helping us reach our goals.

Here’s how it played out. Researchers instructed a group of students to conduct a visual search task while imagining that they were holding the computer monitor they were looking at (not actually holding the monitor, just imagining that they were holding it). Members of another group, meanwhile, were instructed to perform the same task while imagining their hands clasped behind their backs. Of the two groups, students that imagined holding the monitor spent more time and effort on the task and conducted a more thorough analysis. Davoli and Abrams suggest that simply imagining to perform a task may have effects similar to actually performing the task. The dynamic research duo claim “the imagination has the extraordinary capacity to shape reality.”

The mindset of students can dramatically affect the effort they put toward—and the knowledge they take away from—a learning experience. We know that a negative attitude can affect performance during a training session. Some employees may think they already know everything there is to know about their job and shouldn’t be forced to take an e-Learning course, while others believe they’re too busy to fit training into their schedules. No matter the excuse, a negative attitude typically creates a negative learning experience.

In an article for Wired magazine, University of California Associate Professor John Seely Brown and visiting scholar Douglas Thomas describe how online gaming and simulations disguise learning so participants are more willing to enter the experience with an open mind.

“Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place…is what we call accidental learning. It’s learning to be—a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture—as opposed to learning about. Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are immediate.”

The authors also explain how using games and immersive learning simulations can promote more comprehensive learning.

“…The learning [in games and simulations] …is tied to practices but those practices are not solely the practices of game play or even skills such as resource environment. They are, instead, the skills of learning how to use one’s imagination to read across boundaries and be able to find points of convergence and divergence…to understand their relationships to one another.”

The key message here is to never underestimate the power of imagination. Create interactive and engaging e-Learning courses that challenge and immerse learners in the course concepts and instructional material. The more active employees are in their learning process, the better chance they will have to experience the “aha” learning moment that will allow them to reach their goals...and be the ball.

About the Author: Patrick is the Director of Editorial Development at NexLearn. He has over 20 years experience converting ideas into words. He has helped develop hundreds of hours of immersive learning for some of the world’s leading organizations…and he’s picked up an armful of cool shiny and see-through awards along the way. He loves the challenge of creating innovative learning programs that entertain, engage, and actually teach.

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