Research Economics

If You Can Imagine It, You Can Do It

, by Fabio Todesco
Scenario visualization exercises can make business training more effective, especially for women, vulnerable populations, and people who have suffered trauma, according to research by LEAP scholar Alexia Delfino

"If you can dream it, you can do it" is a Walt Disney Company motto and might merely sound like a motivational quote. Recent research in business training, however, in fact states that "if you can imagine it, you can do it."

Neuroscience and psychology have underscored the positive impact of visualizing future scenarios on decision making. Those who invest the effort to imagine the future also have better economic outcomes in the short and medium term. Business training, though, has almost ignored the role of imagery and emotions.

In a working paper with Nava Ashraf, Gharad Bryan, Emily Holmes, Leonardo Iacovone, and Ashley Pope, Bocconi's Laboratory for Effective Anti-poverty Policies (LEAP) scholar Alexia Delfino found that visualization exercises can make business training more effective, especially for women, vulnerable groups, and people who have undergone trauma.

The authors worked with 2,000 would-be entrepreneurs in Colombia, including vulnerable populations like victims of conflict, immigrants, formerly homeless, LGBT community, low-income youth, and the elderly. 83% of them reported past exposure to traumatic events and violence. Using a standard psychological survey, they observed that a more frequent use and higher quality of mental imagery correlate strongly with higher asset accumulation, earnings, and life satisfaction.

The researchers then divided the would-be entrepreneurs into three groups: the first group was offered a standard business training course; the second group was offered the same course, plus scenario simulation exercises; and the third was a control group, with no training at all. After the training, entrepreneurs in the scenario simulation group recorded a higher imagery index, a measure of the frequency of imagery use, enhanced vividness and emotional intensity of imagined future business scenarios. Moreover, those in the imagery group had significantly higher earnings. They were also 6% more likely to obtain credit and, in comparison to other entrepreneurs who obtained credit, acquired significantly higher amounts.

Improvements in imagery skills were stronger in participants with high trauma symptoms. Trauma often leads to emotional shutdown and the inability to imagine positive scenarios. In these cases, scenario simulation exercises can overcome the block, leading to larger effects. Imagery also disproportionately benefits women, who often have limited experience as entrepreneurs and a heavier trauma burden. Women learn business-related imagery more effectively than men, and thus record an improvement in earnings that men do not reach.

The emotional component of imagery, which enables participants to moderate and manage bad emotions and generate positive ones, seems to be particularly important. Participants assigned to the imagery training were more likely to engage in marketing practices, such as seeking clients' feedback or checking a competitor's products, even if these activities can give them bad news. For instance, 78% of imagery-trained business owners checked a competitor's products, compared to 70% of those who received traditional training.

Nava Ashraf, Gharad Bryan, Alexia Delfino, Emily Holmes, Leonardo Iacovone, and Ashley Pope, "Learning to See the World's Opportunities: The Impact of Imagery on Entrepreneurial Success." Working paper.

If You Can Imagine It, You Can Do It

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