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November 29, 2012

The As IfTM Principle - Take Action Now!

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. Visualize your dream self and you will enjoy increased    success. Think like a millionaire and you will grow rich. In principle, this idea sounds perfectly reasonable and some tools are more useful than others. However, if you want to be more confident or successful, and positive thinking is not working for you, the best thing you can do is ACT the part.

 

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.

William James, while working at Harvard University in the late 19th century, hypothesized that the relationship between emotion and behavior was a two-way street, and that behavior can CAUSE emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. 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 behavior, 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 much attention.

However, Dr. 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 can become that person – it has come to be termed 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 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. Dana Carney, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, led a study led 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 70s 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 not equipped with the type of rails and other movement aids they had at home. 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. The group 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, stay slim, increase their willpower and confidence, and even slow the effects of ageing.

 

Action Steps

Here are a few quick and effective exercises that use the As If principle to transform how you think and behave.

  • HAPPINESS: Smile  --  This is the granddaddy of them all. As Laird's study demonstrated, smile and you will feel happier. To get the most out of this exercise, make the smile as wide as possible, extend your eyebrow muscles slightly upward, and hold the resulting expression for about 20 seconds.
  • WILLPOWER: Tense up  --  As Hung's experiments show, tensing your muscles boosts your willpower. Next time you feel the need to avoid that cigarette or cream cake, make a fist, contract your biceps, press your thumb and first finger together, or grip a pen in your hand.
  • EATING HEALTHIER: Use your non-dominant hand. When you eat with your non-dominant hand you are acting as if you are carrying out an unusual behavior. Because of that you place more attention on your action, do not simply consume food without thinking about it, and make wiser choices.
  • PROCRASTINATION: Make a start on the simplest beginning of the task  --  To overcome procrastination, act as if you are interested in what it is that you have to do. Spend just a few minutes carrying out the first part of whatever it is you are avoiding, and suddenly you will feel a strong need to complete the task.
  • PERSISTENCE: Sit up straight and cross your arms. Ron Friedman from the University of Rochester led a study where volunteers were presented with tricky problems to see how long they persevered. Those who sat up straight and folded their arms struggled on for nearly twice as long as others. Make sure your computer monitor is slightly above your eye-line and, when the going gets tough, cross your arms.
  • CONFIDENCE: Power pose  --  To increase your self-esteem and confidence, adopt a power pose. If you are sitting down, lean back, look up and interlock your hands behind your head. If you are standing up, then place your feet flat on the floor, push your shoulders back and your chest forward.
  • PERSUASION: Nod  --  If people nod while they listen to a discussion they are more likely to agree with the points being made. When you want to encourage someone to agree with you, subtly nod your head as you chat with them. Research led by Gary Wells of Iowa State University shows that they will reciprocate the movement and find themselves strangely attracted to your way of thinking.
  • LOVE: Open up  --  Couples in love talk about the more intimate aspects of their lives. Research carried out by Robert Epstein, founder of the Cambridge Centre for Behavioral Studies, shows that the opposite is also true – more intimate chat makes people feel attracted to each other. If you are out on a date, get the other person to open up by asking what advice they would give to their 10-year-old self, or what one object they would save in a house fire.

Credit:  Richard Wiseman--The Observer, Saturday 30 June 2012

 

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