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The As If Principle: Richard Wiseman Shows How Faking It Actually Helps You Make It

Act happier and you’ll be it. Pretend you’re feeling brave and suddenly you are
by Caitlin Schiller | Dec 7 2014

Here’s how your physical behavior actually influences your brain.

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While we all know how emotions can lead to actions – like the way we smile when we’re happy – what if it worked the other way around? What if smiling could make us happy?

New research in Richard Wiseman’s The As If Principle reveals that we are what we act. Running away makes us afraid, while standing firm makes us bold; having fun or being energetic will stave off aging; and just acting differently can really make a lasting change to your personality.

The “whatever you act like” phenomenon, which is known as the “as if principle,” took root in the 19th-century work of philosopher William James. Though the coinage might be Victorian, it has plenty of modern applications.

For his book, Richard Wiseman collected a wealth of biological and psychological research. He cites a particular experiment in which participants outfitted with facial electrodes (for monitoring) were asked to smile – and actually  began to feel happier. On a similar note, Wiseman mentions psychologist Sara Snodgrass at Florida Atlantic University, who discovered that people who take long steps, walk with a bounce, and let their arms swing back and forth tend to feel happier than shufflers who take small steps and have drooping shoulders.

So, what does this mean for work? First, we can use the as if principle to help modify the behaviours that hold us back in life and in the office. By changing our behavior – either the kinds of stories we tell ourselves or our actual physical looks and actions – we can reduce depression and even anxiety (a very common problem amongst high achievers) and motivate ourselves to behave in more fruitful ways.

Change the story you tell yourself

Wiseman mentions a study conducted at Oxford by David Clark that taught people how to deal with their anxiety and panic attacks by reinterpreting their bodily sensations in a more productive way. The subjects reframed their fear by telling themselves things like “exam nerves help focus attention” or “a little extra adrenaline makes for a better interview.” Instead of becoming increasingly panicked, this method led to better results. Before your next performance review or a big public speaking event, you can try telling yourself a new story about your feelings, such as “Nerves will make sure I’m particularly focused on how my audience is reacting to my speech so I can change courses if need be.”

Act like who you want to be

The as if principle can also be moved to motivate people. Wiseman found that seeing themselves act in a certain way makes people motivated to act in a way that is consistent with their newly found identity. For example, Patricia Pliner, University of Toronto, conducted a charity experiment. Initially 46% of residents were prepared to write a check to a cancer charity when a volunteer knocked on their door. However, over 90% agreed to give to the charity 2 weeks after an initial volunteer knocked on their doors asking them simply to wear a pin to help publicise the cause.

Here, we see that even small changes to how people perceive their identity can make big changes to their behavior. Getting this to work for you in the office could be as simple as encouraging a team in which morale is flagging to have lunch together once a week so that people begin to feel they are part of a collective. It could also mean giving a certain employee you’d like to move into a leadership position one more small area of responsibility that will help them step into more leaderly behaviors. By helping people see themselves as part of a supportive collective or as an important point person, you can influence their identity and their behavior.

You can read more about the real benefits of faking it ‘til you make it in Richard Wiseman’s The As If Principle.

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