The Heliotropic Effect

Sunflowers sun clouds


Kenneth Boulding, an economist and peace activist, and Elise Boulding, a Quaker and sociologist, co-founded Imaginal Education in the 1960s. In their core work on “imagining a world without weapons” participants were asked to imagine what a world at peace thirty years hence might look like.  A group would then play the story backwards as one might a film from its end in reverse to its start. This was done in five-year increments, for six chapters in all. At each step back, the group was asked what needed to happen at that stage in order for their dream to manifest. In this way, the picture of the present and that of one possible future were married and mediated “from the real to the desired, from the present into the future” ( A network of practitioners’ work in 35 countries affiliated with the Institute for Cultural Affairs International [ICAI].

Appreciative Inquiry [AI] is the theory and practice of organizational transformation developed by D. Cooperrider and S. Srivastva in 1992 at Case Western University. AI focuses on what works well for people as opposed to what doesn’t. During the process, members of an organization co-create a picture of the positive future organization they imagine using images and words. Research shows that this helps people to actualize what they envision. The AI founders called this the Heliotropic Effect. The concept, borrowed from botany, refers to the tendency of certain plants to continually turn towards sunlight. “Like a plant that grows in the direction of the light source, individuals and groups strive to grow towards the positive image they hold” [D. Cooperrider, 1990: appreciativeinquiry. org].  As Dr. Kim Cameron notes in ‘The Heliotropic Effect of Abundance’, “all living systems are inclined toward that which gives life” (Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance: The Rocky Flats Story, 2006).

The heliotropic effect operates on an individual and group level. Our own positive images and related expectations help generate it. It is also generated when others have positive expectations of us. It occurs even when individuals are exposed only temporarily to life affirming, positive behaviours.

There are various ways the heliotropic effect works. For example, in healthcare, it manifests as the Placebo Effect. Positive visualization is effective 60% of the time in aiding the healing process post surgery. In education, this manifests as the Pygmalion Effect. Research indicates that positive expectations from a teacher have more impact than IQ on achievement. More generally, “the heliotropic effect not only produces elevated performance, but also it provides amplifying benefits—escalating, self-reinforcing performance—and buffering benefits—the development of resiliency and the ability to absorb negative influences” [Kim Cameron, The Heliotropic Effect of Abundance]. As Cooperrider states: “Human systems are largely heliotropic in character, meaning that they exhibit an observable and largely automatic tendency to evolve in the direction of positive anticipatory images of the future’.

The theories and practices of imaginal education and heliotropic psychology have much in common. One shared perspective is that anticipatory realities, as encoded in images, are what make social collectivities work the way they do. Anticipatory realities – that which people dream of and hope for – energizes and orients behavior towards their realization. Or, as the futurist Fred Polak put it “[We are] citizens of two worlds: the present and the imagined. Out of this antithesis the future is born.” (1973). In other words, social imagination may be exercised in the same way that individual imagination is, excepting with amplified consequences. Individuals and communities change if they imagine they can. Initiatives such as micro credit and asset based community development started with a vision that the poorest of the poor had precious assets never imagined in conventional business and banking.

Howard Esbin, PhDThe Heliotropic Effect