Anyone who has studied positive thinking, New Thought or the Law of Attraction understands the concept of acting “as if.” You know—acting with confidence and grace even when you’re shaking in your boots, or putting a smile on your face and acting happy even when you woke up feeling terrible. Many people believe that those actions can actually lead to their desired results. But while “faking it until you make it” might sound like nothing more than an unsubstantiated urban legend, plenty of evidence now proves the process is beneficial in dozens of ways.
Several weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading a book called Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman. While explaining in great deal how we all think, Kahneman describes what he calls the “priming effect.” Priming is one way that our brain processes information very efficiently. Simply put, when we see or hear something that we recognize, we automatically make quick and easy associations. If I say summer—you think “hot.” If I say chocolate—most of you will smile. If we pay attention we can catch ourselves in these fast “associations” all the time, but the tricky thing is—we make them 24-7 whether we are aware of them or not. This process of “priming” leads our brains to almost automatically think or act or believe things when they appear connected—just like when we act as if.
For example, there is a study done where young adults read the words: Florida, forgetful, bald, grey and wrinkled. Next, they were asked to put those words in a sentence. Afterwards an observer measured them walking from one location to another and they all moved significantly slower than those who read words that were randomly chosen. So, just by reading words related to aging they moved slower. In other words, what you read affects you. What you hear affects you. And what you say affects you—even when you aren’t aware of it—mentally, emotionally and even physically.
These and other studies like it use the brain’s ability to make “reciprocal links” for everything that it processes. For example, by merely putting a pencil in your mouth sideways, that movement approximates a smile. When participants were asked to rate how funny cartoons were while reading with the pencil smile in their mouths, they rated the cartoons as more amusing. Yes, even a fake smile can make things seem brighter because of reciprocal linking.
In contrast, if you hold one end of your pen in your mouth pointing straight out, this movement approximates a frown. Students that were quizzed about cartoons while holding the pen in a frown rated them much less funny. Other studies suggest that when you bunch your brows together hard in determination, you tend to see things more with more seriousness and emotional upset. What is the expression on your face right now—smile or frown? That expression on your face is reciprocally linked to how you feel about this article.
Another series of experiments asked people to nod their heads up and down in a yes type movement while listening to an editorial. Another set of participants listened to the same material but were asked to shake their heads slowly from side to side as though to express a no type movement. When it was over both groups were asked to rate the material. The majority of those who had the yes gesture rated the material far more favorably than those with the no gesture.
Kahneman points out repeatedly that our brains automatic ability to be affected by things we see and hear threatens “our self image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and choices.” He sites examples of how some people are influenced to vote differently depending upon the location of the polling station. Especially disturbing was how people who are “primed” to ideas of money and wealth automatically began responding in a much more “independent” manner. Money primed people were repeatedly less willing to help others and showed a “reluctance to be involved with others, to depend on others or to accept demands from others.” In a culture that routinely surrounds itself with money and a money-related focus, it is no surprise that our behavior and attitudes are affected in ways that reflect high individualism.
Other priming studies in the book show that when people are exposed to fear-induced ideas or their own mortality, they are drawn to the appeal of authoritarian ideas that appear reassuring. If our brains automatically prime themselves with the images, sounds and concepts we expose ourselves to on a regular basis, one can easily imagine how watching TV news with its consistent diet of negativity would focus our entire lives on a certain trajectory. It is also disturbing to learn how we can be unconsciously manipulated without our awareness.
But the book isn’t the only place that studies like this show that “priming” our brain can help us to “act as if.” For example, an article in Prevention Magazine several years ago pointed out that when students were encouraged to act like extroverts for 15 minutes in a group discussion (even if they didn’t feel like it) they felt much more assertive, energetic and happier as a result. Deepak Chopra in his book Authentic Aging cities the provocative study where seniors were invited to a location for a weekend and exposed to everything that came from the days of their youth. After one weekend of submersing themselves in that environment of their youth they tested much more healthy—physically, mentally and emotionally—than before their experiment.
Anywhere people access water by pumping it out of a well, it is sometimes necessary to prime the pump to get it flowing. Priming is putting liquid into the pump to displace any air and get it moving. While we don’t usually think of “priming a pump” in the same context as “acting as if,” the similarities are obvious. When we “act as if,” we are priming our consciousness to move in a new and unrestricted way in the direction of our intentions.
I find it important to remember that this is happening in our minds every single day whether we are aware of it or not. There may be some people who don’t like the idea that the practice of “acting as if” sounds like positive thinking or worse, metaphysical mumbo jumbo. But there is far too much evidence showing that our brains are automatically processing in this way already, so if we aren’t using it to our advantage—it is likely being used to our disadvantage. If we consistently focus on common fears in our culture, (do I really need to list them?) then we likely are “priming” our hearts and souls to that kind of an experience.
Okay, so it’s not always easy to stay conscious and aware. And we know it’s not always easy to act as if things are going great when our heart is breaking. But if our minds can be primed to start thinking in a way that heals us and lifts us up out of the muck, isn’t that worth trying? Besides, I never said that living SMART 365 was supposed to be easy—only that it was achievable—and very likely to create a world that is sustainable, meaningful, aware, responsible and thankful.
“The best way to create what you want is to become the person who already has it.” ~ Jeannett Maw
“When you have a vision and you act as if that vision were already here, you create not only the necessary expertise, but you literally become your own miracle worker.”~ Wayne Dyer
“I have often been afraid, but I wouldn’t give in to it. I made myself act as though I was not afraid, and gradually my fear disappeared.” ~Theodore Roosevelt
Kathy, thank you for this post. I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” which also is about the *instantaneous,* *sub-conscious* associations and conclusions our minds make, citing similar very interesting research. It certainly has made me try to tune in more to my automatic perceptions and challenge them!
Your report was concise, well-written and thought-provoking, and provides more reasoning to stay on the positive, solution-oriented, expectant side of life rather than on the “Oh, dear! Oh, no!”worried side. (If we want to be happy, that is! LOL)