A few years ago on All Saints Day I gave a sermon that went something like this: Most of us are not saints, but if we keep pretending we are for long enough, then it might just happen. The external ‘pretence’ will not just be a pretence, because it will involve actions that are in themselves good – being patient, being generous, etc. And these actions, this ‘charade’, will gradually transform our behaviour and our character. This is no more than a translation of Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
Richard Wiseman collects together empirical evidence from the last few decades to prove that the ‘change your way of acting’ self-help books are far more effective than the ‘change your way of thinking’ ones. (‘Fake it until you make it’, as one comment said after the article). Self-image and inner conviction – positive thinking – don’t make much difference, compared with just getting on and doing something you wish you could do.
It starts with smiling when you don’t particular want to smile.
Towards the end of the 1880s, [William] 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 commonsense 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 70s 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.
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.
Wiseman writes as if there was a historical gulf between William James and 1970s behavioural psychology. But he forgets about Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. This idea that external action determines inner experience rather than the other way round is just the existentialist doctrine that existence precedes essence.
Sartre believed that emotions are ‘intentional’, meaning that emotion is not a fixed inner state that determines our action, but that we in part determine how we will feel through the choices we make about how to approach the world. So Sartre’s ‘existential psychology’, way before the 1970s, was all about helping you to take responsibility for your actions, and seeing how new freely chosen actions – and new goals – could transform who you are and how you feel. This was explicitly against the Freudian idea that you have to discover and open up the ‘inner life’ or the ‘subconscious’.
Sartre was very suspicious of the subconscious. In many ways he was an Aristotelian: character is what matters; and character is formed by making a commitment to a certain goal, and repeating actions that lead to that goal. If you want to know what someone is like, don’t ask them – look at how they live. And if you want to change your life, don’t think about it too much – just get on and do it. (If you are really interested, I have a book on this!)