For years self-help gurus have preached the same simple mantra: If you want to improve your life then you need to change how you think. Force yourself to have positive thoughts and you will become happier. Visualise your dream self and you will enjoy increased success. Think like a millionaire and you will magically grow rich. In principle, this idea sounds perfectly reasonable. However, in practice it often proves ineffective.
Take visualisation. Hundreds of self-improvement books encourage readers to close their eyes and imagine their perfect selves; to see themselves in a huge office at the top of the corporate ladder, or sipping a refreshment as they feel the warm Caribbean sand between their toes. Unfortunately, research suggests this technique does not work.
In one study led by Lien Pham at the University of California, students were asked to spend a few moments each day visualising themselves getting a high grade in an upcoming examination. Even though the daydreaming exercise only lasted a few minutes, it caused the students to study less and obtain lower marks. In another experiment led by Gabriele Oettingen from New York University, graduates were asked to note down how often they fantasised about getting their dream job after leaving college. The students who reported that they frequently fantasised about such success received fewer job offers and ended up with significantly smaller salaries.
Why should this be so? Maybe those who fantasise about a wonderful life are ill-prepared for setbacks, or become reluctant to put in the effort required to achieve their goal. Either way, the message is clear — imagining the perfect you is not good for your life.
However, when it comes to change, the message is not all gloom and doom. Decades of research show that there is indeed a simple but highly effective way to transform how you think and feel. The technique turns common sense on its head but is grounded in science. Strangely, the story begins with a world-renowned Victorian thinker and an imaginary bear.
Working at Harvard University in the late 19th century, William James, brother of the novelist Henry James, was attracted to the unconventional, often walking around campus sporting a silk hat and red-checked trousers, and describing his theories using amusing prose (“As long as one poor cockroach feels the pangs of unrequited love, this world is not a moral world”). This unconventional approach paid off. First published in 1890, James’s two-volume magnum opus, “The Principles of Psychology”, is still required reading for students of behavioural science.
Towards the end of the 1880s, James turned his attention to the relationship between emotion and behaviour. Our everyday experience tells us that your emotions cause you to behave in certain ways. Feeling happy makes you smile, and feeling sad makes you frown. Case closed, mystery solved. However, James became convinced that this common-sense view was incomplete and proposed a radical new theory.
James hypothesised that the relationship between emotion and behaviour was a two-way street, and that behaviour can cause emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. Or, to use James’s favourite way of putting it: “You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it.”
James’s theory was quickly relegated to the filing drawer marked “years ahead of its time”, and there it lay for more than six decades.
Throughout that time many self-help gurus promoted ideas that were in line with people’s everyday experiences about the human mind. Common sense tells us that emotions come before behaviour, and so decades of self-help books told readers to focus on trying to change the way they thought rather than the way they behaved. James’s theory simply didn’t get a look-in.
However in the 1970s, psychologist James Laird from Clark University decided to put James’s theory to the test. Volunteers were invited into the laboratory and asked to adopt certain facial expressions. To create an angry expression participants were asked to draw down their eyebrows and clench their teeth. For the happy expression they were asked to draw back the corners of the mouth. The results were remarkable. Exactly as predicted by James years before, the participants felt significantly happier when they forced their faces into smiles, and much angrier when they were clenching their teeth.
Subsequent research has shown that the same effect applies to almost all aspects of our everyday lives. By acting as if you are a certain type of person, you become that person — what I call the “As If” principle.
Take, for example, willpower. Motivated people tense their muscles as they get ready to spring into action. But can you boost your willpower by simply tensing your muscles? Studies led by Iris Hung from the National University of Singapore had volunteers visit a local cafeteria and asked them to try to avoid temptation and not buy sugary snacks. Some of the volunteers were asked to make their hand into a fist or contract their biceps, and thus behave as if they were more motivated. Amazingly, this simple exercise made people far more likely to buy healthy food.
The same applies to confidence. Most books on increasing confidence encourage readers to focus on instances in their life when they have done well or ask them to visualise themselves being more assertive. In contrast, the As If principle suggests that it would be much more effective to simply ask people to change their behaviour.
Dana Carney, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, led a study where she split volunteers into two groups. The people in one group were placed into power poses. Some were seated at desks, asked to put their feet up on the table, look up and interlock their hands behind the back of their heads. In contrast, those in the other group were asked to adopt poses that weren’t associated with dominance. Some of these participants were asked to place their feet on the floor, with hands in their laps and look at the ground. Just one minute of dominant posing provided a real boost in confidence.
The researchers then turned their attention to the chemicals coursing through the volunteers’ veins. Those power-posing had significantly higher levels of testosterone, proving that the poses had changed the chemical make-up of their bodies.
The As If principle can even make you feel younger. Harvard Psychology professor Ellen Langer has conducted many high-profile experiments; one of her most striking involved using the As If principle to turn back the hands of time.
In 1979 Langer recruited a group of men in their seventies for a “week of reminiscence” at a retreat outside Boston. Before the study started, Langer tested the men’s strength, posture, eyesight and memory.
She then encouraged the men to act as if they were 20 years younger. When they arrived at the retreat, for instance, there was no one there to help them off the bus and they had to carry their suitcases inside. In addition, the retreat had not been equipped with the type of rails and other movement aids they had at home. After unpacking, everyone was assembled in the main room of the retreat. Surrounded by various objects from the 1950s, including a black-and-white television and a vintage radio, Langer informed the participants that for the next few days, all of their conversations about the past had to be in the present tense, and that no conversation must mention anything that happened after 1959.
Within days, Langer could see the dramatic effect of behaving As If. The participants were now walking faster and were more confident. Within a week several of the participants had decided that they could now manage without their walking sticks. Langer took various psychological and physiological measurements throughout the experiment and discovered that the group now showed improvements in dexterity, speed of movement, memory, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing. Acting as if they were young men had knocked years off their bodies and minds.
More than a century ago William James proposed a radically different approach to change. Decades of research has shown that his theory applies to almost every aspect of everyday life and can be used to help people feel happier, avoid anxiety and worry, fall in love and live happily ever after, stay slim, increase their willpower and confidence, and even slow the effects of ageing. So sit up straight and take a deep breath. It is time to rip up the rule book and embrace the truth about change.
– Guardian News and Media Limited
Richard Wiseman’s first career was as a professional magician and he was once one of the youngest members of the Magic Circle. He studied at UCL and the University of Edinburgh and is now Britain’s only professor for the public understanding of psychology, based at the University of Hertfordshire.