Positive Results Through Negative Visualization
In a previous post, I wrote about how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can help us with risk management by categorizing things by what we can control, and what we cannot control. In this post, I want to analyze another concept popularized by the Stoics – that of “negative visualization”, and explore how it relates to risk.
The fact that bad things can always happen seems to be an existential truth. Enshrined as Murphy’s Law, “if something can go wrong, it will” is something that even the ancient Greeks understood well.
The practice of “premeditatio malorum”, or negative visualization, was promoted by the Stoic philosophers, and involved thinking about the setbacks, mishaps, and hardships that will eventually befall us. Of course, this doesn’t sound like a very fun exercise. However, by thinking through what negative scenarios might materialize, one can better prepare for and mitigate the effects than if the events happen without our expecting them.
As the philosopher Seneca described it: “What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events… Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” (1)
The philosopher Epictetus provided the following example: “When you are going to perform an act, remind yourself what kind of things the act may involve. When going to the swimming pool, reflect on what may happen at the pool: some will splash the water, some will push against one another, others will abuse one another, and others will steal. Thusly you have mentally prepared yourself to undertake the act, and you can say to yourself: I now intend to bathe, and am prepared to maintain my will in a virtuous manner, having warned myself of what may occur. Do this for every act, so that if any hindrance does emerge, you can think: I did not prepare myself only to undertake the act, but also for this hindrance that has occurred, and also to handle this hindrance virtuously & keep my will conformed to nature — and this will be impossible if I become vexed.” (2)
The parallels with risk analysis are quite strong. For example, as described by Kaplan and Garrick (3), the first of the three guiding questions of risk analysis is “What can go wrong?” Before you can assess and mitigate a risk, you need to first identify it. So in a sense, the entire field of risk analysis and risk management involves engaging in premeditatio malorum.
The reason you buy flood insurance is that you have already negatively envisioned your house flooding. The reason you buckle your seat belt is because you have had the negative visualization of getting into a car accident. Generating these negative visualizations is essential to managing risk.
Additionally, thinking about hazards before they happen can change our perceptions about them. When hazards are thought of as controllable, easily reduced, and observable, they are viewed as less “risky” (4). In other words, by thinking about risks, and thinking about how one can respond to those risks, the risks tend to diminish in how ominous they appear. The worst risks are those that catch us unexpectedly and unprepared, as Seneca pointed out.
In conclusion, even though thinking about risks can be unpleasant, there is value which can be gained from the exercise. Negative visualization facilitates the identification of sources of risk, and helps us to plan for how to mitigate them. Additionally, the risks don’t seem as scary when we identify them, and realize that we can respond in various ways to mitigate the impacts.
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(3) Kaplan, S., and Garrick, B.J. 1981. “On the quantitative definition of risk.” Risk Analysis, 1(1), 11-27.
(4) Slovic, P. 1987. “Perception of risk.” Science, 236(4799), 280-285.