Irvine on negative visualization

a-storm-shipwreckWilliam Irvine makes interesting points about the much misunderstood Stoic (and CBT) practice of negative visualization, or as the Romans called it, premeditatio malorum. The excerpts below are from chapter 4 of his book.

He begins by introducing the well know problem of hedonic adaptation, the empirical fact that people get used to what they have and begin to appreciate it less:

“The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation. To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. … Another, less dramatic form of hedonic adaptation takes place when we make consumer purchases. Initially, we delight in the wide-screen television or fine leather handbag we bought. After a time, though, we come to despise them and find ourselves longing for an even wider-screen television or an even more extravagant handbag. Likewise, we experience hedonic adaptation in our career.”

He then presents the Stoic solution to the problem:

“The stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique— let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus . 5 It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.”

Irvine continues by addressing various objections to the practice:

This sounds like no fun at all. But more to the point, it seems unlikely that a Stoic will gain tranquility as a result of entertaining such thoughts. To the contrary, he is likely to end up glum and anxiety -ridden. In response to this objection, let me point out that it is a mistake to think Stoics will spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes. It is instead something they will do periodically: A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him. Furthermore, there is a difference between contemplating something bad happening and worrying about it. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and it is possible for us to conduct such exercises without its affecting our emotions. It is possible, for example, for a meteorologist to spend her days contemplating tornadoes without subsequently living in dread of being killed by one. In similar fashion, it is possible for a Stoic to contemplate bad things that can happen without becoming anxiety-ridden as a result.”

Finally, I particularly like the way he ends the chapter:

“By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent . We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. Some people, I realize, will find it depressing or even morbid to contemplate impermanence. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.”

9 thoughts on “Irvine on negative visualization

  1. I think a preferable meditation is what I used to call from the pulpit “The blessed Sacrament of Enough”. A corollary of this is that happiness does in large part depend upon having enough: food, shelter, medical care for yourself and your family. And morally we should want our neighbors to have the same.


  2. In my opinion, “contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world” could be the only effective weapon we can appeal to face our present times; because all around the world we can see what are prices in terms or freedom and justice we are paying on behalf of presumed security and democracy. If we were more used to cope some natural uncertainty of our life – if not the universe -, perhaps we wouldn’t fall into the pitfall of modern politics…

    By the way, I don’t think “negative visualisation” should be each time necessarily so extreme! For example, even though I was really reluctant to practise it, recently I found it incredibly effective, not because I roused grim thoughts in my mind for the love of “rumination”, but because something destabilising could really come about to me, so to examine all possible consequences in advance has had unexpectedly… a calming effect on me!


  3. Sergij, I think you got it precisely right. It does have a calming effect, at least on some people, and yes, it doesn’t have to be always about highly dramatic things, like one’s own death.


  4. «As the ultimate ‘misfortune’ with which Stoicism is concerned is one’s own death, the technique of premeditation also leads into the broader concept of contemplating one’s own mortality» (D. Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, p. 149). However, I would like to ask you: is it really this the most painful ‘malus’ we have to cope? What is unthinkable to me is not my own death, but the other’s one!


  5. Sergio, I doubt the Stoics would have characterized their own death as the ultimate misfortune. Rather, they thought of it as the ultimate test of one’s character in the face of externals one cannot control.


  6. Interestingly, in what you suggest there could be a particular nuance, a shifting of context, a mischievous indetermination: my death is an external I can’t control only if I’m not supposed to wish to commit suicide! And this reminds me that such a possibility was the way how a Roman slave claimed his liberty before his Emperor!
    P. S. Dear Massimo, you are so prolific that I decided to continue my Stoic training by following, reading and mulling in my mind just a tiny part of your lively posts! Thanks.


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