This research explores the self-regulatory functions of mental simulation, that is the mental rehearsal of real or hypothetical events. The work distingushes between outcome simulations, which involve rehearsal of successful completion of a goal, and process simulations, which involve the rehearsal of the specific steps required to achieve a goal. Previous research suggests that both types of simulations may beneficially affect performance, but that process simulations enhance planning, leading people to make progress on meeting their goals; outcome simulations sometimes enhance motivation and perceived self-efficacy without affecting goal-directed activity. A program of nine experimental studies examines the self-regulatory effects of outcome and process simulations on goal-directed activity and identifies the conditions when process versus outcome simulations successfully facilitate progress toward an educational goal. These studies also examine the relation of mental simulation to the planning fallacy, namely people's overly optimistic estimates of the amount of time and effort it will take to achieve a goal; it is hypothesized that increasing realism may occur at the expense of reduced motivation, task enjoyment, and, paradoxically, longer time to task completion. The research examines the self-regulatory effects of negative simulations, arguing that when such simulations are performed briefly or with otherwise positive simulations, they may benefit goal-directed activity, but that continued rehearsal of negative simulations may bring about a partial self-fulfilling prophecy. The significance of the proposed research lies in its capacity to elucidate the importance of mental simulation as a cognitive underpinning of educational interventions to improve school performance and study skills. This program of research addresses the question of how people achieve their goals by investigating the effects of mental rehearsal (simulation) on goal achievement. A series of experiments compar es the effects of outcome simulations, in which people rehearse the successful achievement of a personal goal, and process simulations, in which people mentally rehearse the steps they will need to go through in order to achieve their goal. It is hypothesized that outcome simulations may "hype" people, making them feel motivated and excited without necessarily producing effective action toward their goals. In contrast, process simulations enhance planning, and, consequently, help people begin goal-directed activity earlier, ultimately achieving more successful performance. This research also examines the effect of mental simulation on the planning fallacy, namely the commonly-reported tendency for people to be overly optimistic about how quickly and easily they can achieve personal goals, and it tests the hypothesis that outcome simulations may exacerbate the planning fallacy, whereas process simulations may reduce it. Finally, the research explores the benefits and liabilities of negative mental simulations, namely imagining how one's efforts may go awry in the process of trying to achieve a goal. All of the studies will be conducted in educational settings which examine the impact of simulations on student achievement. Hence, this program of research is highly relevant to the 'education' component of the Human Capital research agenda. Since the results of the educational investigations translate directly to the work environment, it also has considerable relevance to the 'workplace' component. Finally, it bears directly on the 'disadvantage' component inasmuch as much of the work will focus on students who are the first in their families to go to college, an intrisically talented population that is heavily minority, poor, and at high risk for dropping out of college. The goal of the research is to develop an understanding of mental simulation techniques that can improve school performance and improve cognitive skills, especially among high-risk students.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Steven Breckler
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University of California Los Angeles
Los Angeles
United States
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