If you're just joining us, last post I was talking about how beliefs run our lives through their influence on our actions and their influence on our interpretations of feedback from the external world. Here I will provide several more examples and elaborate on the concept.
First, I want to share one of the most interesting (and scientifically supported) examples of self-fulfilling mechanisms. The article I refer you to is called The Luck Factor. I highly recommend reading and re-reading this, since it's short and fascinating. I will describe some of it here without going into too much detail. The main thrust is that people who believe they are lucky end up acting in ways that bring them more of what they want in life, and that people who believe themselves unlucky tend to act in such a way that denies them access to what they want. The main mechanisms he refers to are what he calls "Chance Opportunities" and "Counter-factual Thinking."
Chance opportunities are those moments when life presents us with new options that we either take or leave, and which we'd do well to take (and learn from). Those who feel unlucky tend to miss out on these because they are focused on searching only for what they know they want, causing them to miss possibilities that are actually there in front of them. People who feel lucky, on the other hand, tend to be more relaxed (a common thread in the successful half of this whole self-fulfilling prophecy story), which makes them more likely to notice when something new is appealing, even if it doesn't have a neon sign in front to indicate it as the Next Big Thing. Not only are the "lucky" people more observant, allowing them to notice chance opportunities, but they tended to seek variety and so encountered more of them. They would walk home from work using different routes, go to new cafes and restaurants, talk to different people at parties (this part of the article is extra interesting).
(Side note: to link this discussion with Nassim Taleb and Antifragile, which I must, seeking variety in low-cost situations is a hallmark of antifragility. At worst, it leads to increased wisdom and robustness; at best, it leads to experiences of Striking It Big and the feeling of dominance over the universe.)
The other mechanism of finding more luck is "counter-factual thinking." It basically means thinking of what has not happened, what is counter to the facts of experience. People who tend to feel lucky explain unfortunate events thusly: "Wow, I'm so glad it was only this bad. It could have been so much worse." This causes them to bounce back, and even grow (antifragilely) more quickly because they don't waste as much time slumped in the aftermath. People who feel unlucky tend to explain misfortune as, "Of course, this always happens to me. I can't escape it." This causes them to stay stuck for longer in self-pity and helplessness, while simultaneously not learning as much from the experience.
And now, for the big picture. Let's go back to the example at the end of Self Fulfilling Mechanisms, Part 1, the Fear of Falling Off. When we find a high-value activity or skill that we want to practice for a long time, we are often struck with a fear of not being able to "stick with it." This fear, which arises subtly from the belief that we won't stick with it, stirs anxiety and causes us to avoid thoughts and images of practicing the thing, which makes us fill our minds and time with more "pressing" matters, and then we stop practicing for a while or altogether.
The way I suggested to overcome this is based on the following idea: If our beliefs cause us to take certain actions in line with those beliefs, and those actions bring about responses from the world that support our original belief, then what happens if we take the action which would sprout from the opposite belief? If, instead of believing that I'll never stick with it, what if I were to believe that it's impossible for me to stop practicing and, if anything, I'm scared I'll practice too much? What would I do in that case? For me, the answer is, I would make damn sure I never over-practiced, that I always stopped myself before I was ready to stop. For this particular belief (Falling Off), it makes sense from another framework, which I described in this post Part 1, about the Peak-end rule.
I think this idea of doing the action which follows from the opposite belief can work in general to reverse self-fulfilling mechanisms in our lives that we do not want to self-fulfill. In terms of The Luck Factor, seeking variety and using our imagination to think of how bad events could have been worse are two simple actions we can take that come from the belief of having good luck, and they actually lead to having good luck. This Opposite-Action Option (OAO) is by no means a perfect formula. It's more of a heuristic, a simple rule of thumb to try out and adjust when necessary.
An example that I have found works really well in teaching 8th graders has to do with beliefs about being heard and listened to. I forget where I learned it, but it is an amazing instance of opposite-action (OA) power. When my students are talking, and the noise level in the room rises, I become afraid that no one is listening to me and no one will hear me, and this is not just disconcerting because I think they need to hear what I have to say, but because not being heard is a deeply lonely and powerless feeling that I have had plenty of exposure to. My instinctive reaction to a loud room is not only to raise my own voice, but change my tone from that of calm confidence to that of irritation and sarcasm. And what does this do to the noise level in the room? In response to my voice, the students end up having to raise theirs in turn to be heard by the person sitting next to them. In this case, my belief that I won't be heard may be well founded, and that makes no difference. The difference is in my ACTION, which brings a response, which either supports or refutes my belief.
My new tactic is to smile, take a breath, and speak quietly to the students in the back, who are not looking at me. This action that makes sense for someone who believes that their voice and face are the only ones in the room. The reaction is fascinating in real time. The students in the front row look at me, straining a bit, curious about what I'm saying. The ones in middle seats quickly follow those in front, and then after a few seconds, the ones in the back do a double take, as everyone else is now silent and focused on my near-whisper. Sometimes, when it doesn't work so quickly, a student near the front will turn back and shout, "SHHHHH" or "SHUT UP," acting as my bull horn and saying what I so badly want to say but won't because I'm a Teacher and the image I present to my students is no accident. This then shifts my belief from, "No one will hear me" to "Everyone wants me to speak."
Along the same lines, but maybe more emotional, there's the belief that someone will not give me what I need from them. Then I approach them either with a repulsive intensity or characterize them in some way like, "I know you never [do this] but you should probably [do this [for me]]." If I indicate that there is a big emotional downside to them not doing what I'm asking, it will not go well. They will get anxious, will avoid thoughts relating to me, and will forget what I've asked them to do. Then they will have proved me correct. I will be incredulous at my accuracy of prediction and will never ask them to do anything for me again, until next time, when I do the exact same thing.
The opposite belief would be absolute confidence in compliance and care. What would I do in such a case? It's not so much what I'd say as how I'd say it (tone, facial expression, body language, which are hard to control), but maybe I'd start with, "Hey, how are you today? What's on your plate?"..."There's something I need to get done, do you think you could help me out with it? If not, I understand." These phrases are of course not powerful in themselves if they're being used as a trick to fool the other person into thinking that I'm warm to them. But with the intention of wondering if that person has the capacity to care about what I care about, and wanting to find out if they have the time and energy to help me out, I will be more likely to get them to help me. If I find out that they can't, I will be better equipped to find someone who can, and therefore more likely to get what I want.
I hope this has been at the very least interesting to read and inspiring to try out new ways of acting in life. Again, it is nuanced, and life is usually not-at-all obvious about what choices will bring us what we want. My invitation is to try small doses of new possibilities with high amounts of self-observation and awareness of how it feels and what results it brings. No result is all good or all bad, and both sides are useful. We want to be emotionally sensitive to the upsides of our new experiences, let ourselves feel the good, while also becoming more rationally sensitive to things which have not worked and which present new possibilities to try out next time. The only shortcut in life seems to be avoiding shortcuts and trusting that the complexity of the world will present what we seek, if we can just keep all of our senses open to perceiving and receiving it.
While the word "prophecy" might make some people think of Disney movies or gypsy psychics, most prophecies are made right behind our eyes. Meaning we make them, about our own lives, and we believe them because they're from a reliable source.
There is a certain type of prophecy called "self-fulfilling," meaning that the outcome is caused by the belief itself. The thing about self-fulfilling prophecies is that they almost always come true. In fact, the name "prophecy" is really the wrong word for what I'm talking about. These do not happen magically, but because of clear, logical mechanisms. Our belief (prophecy) causes us to take actions in line with that belief. The WAY we act creates a response and feedback from the outside world, which ends up supporting our belief, which strengthens the belief and gets us to repeat the same actions, ad absurdum nauseum via infinitum.
The rubber of our minds hits the road of reality where our beliefs spark actions. We use ours actions to test our beliefs, modifying both of them when they're wrong or unhealthy. The diagram is: Belief -> Action -> Feedback -> Adjustment -> New belief, and repeat. But this isn't always how it goes. Sometimes it's: Belief -> Action -> Feedback (supporting the belief) -> Same Action again, leading to the same outcome over and over and strengthening the belief each time. The missing step is Trying Something New.
A very simple example of self-fulfilling mechanisms: The Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset, concepts introduced by psychologist Carol Dweck.
The Growth Mindset is the belief that I am growing, and that I can significantly improve my ability or intelligence through practice. If I have that belief about, say math, then if I am faced with a choice of whether or not to do math, I will more likely choose DO, which will cause me to practice mathematical thinking skills, which will improve my ability and intelligence around math. Growth Mindset -> More practice -> Improved Abilities -> Stronger Belief in ability to improve -> More practice, and so on. (By the way, the Growth Mindset is neuro-physiologically accurate: intelligence can be improved.) An additional layer is that just by being aware of the Growth Mindset, a kind of meta-self-fulfilling-prophecy takes hold. Not only do I become more likely to practice under normal circumstances, but I will be stronger in the face of bigger obstacles to my practice because I value it more highly.
The Fixed Mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that I cannot significantly improve my ability or intelligence. Let's say I think of myself as not a "math person." This will lead me to choose Not Math when given the choice, which will stop me from practicing mathematical thinking, which will leave me less equipped than those who did choose math, which will reinforce my belief that those people are "math people" and I simply am not. In mirror opposition to the meta-prophecy remark above, being unaware of my Fixed Mindset will stop me from attributing my lack of skill to lack of practice, further promoting my belief that it is something inherently ME that's causing this spiral of weakness.
Another example, that illustrates a sad but kind of beautiful human fragility. When we think we've found something "good for us," such as eating healthy, meditating, exercise, reading, playing music, writing, whatever it is, and we'd like to continue practicing this activity for a long time - the rest of our lives? - we often fall prey to another self-fulfilling mechanism. It is what I like to call the Fear of Falling Off, or the Fear of Being A Dirty Quitter. It's not just fear of giving up though, but the subtle, sometimes unconscious belief that we WILL FAIL JUST YOU WAIT. The mechanism here is similar to that of the Fixed Mindset, but not exactly.
Fear causes anxiety, a physical-emotional sensation of inhibiting tightness. When we feel anxiety, our normal response is to avoid that which is bringing it about. If the source is a thought, perhaps an image of practicing my growthful activity that I really want to keep practicing for a long time because it's good for me but that's a tall order - the rest of my life? - and I'm not sure if I can do it for that long because what if I get bored or lazy or just feel too weak so I lock myself to the couch and watch Netflix until my brain melts into the cushions and my my skin hardens like petrified wood, and what then WHAT THEN?, we tend to avoid such a thought. If we keep the image of us practicing out of our head, because of the anxiety it stirs in us, then we will be less likely to practice ever, at all, period, much less _____________. My fear about not "keeping up" with practice causes me to stop myself from imagining practice. I find ways to keep my mind occupied with other stuff so I never have the "time" to practice. And thus the prophecy fulfills itself.
The interesting thing about this example, and others, is what I believe to be the remedy. In a phrase, it might be described as "Do the opposite," as in, do the action that arises from the opposite belief. I will get into this more in Part 2, but for now, let's say: if you're afraid of getting bored, then consciously forbid yourself from practicing too often or for too long. Make it impossible to be bored by always leaving yourself wanting more. Stop during the peak moment of enjoyment, (or just after but that's a slippery slope), never allowing yourself to experience the feeling of "OK great, what's next?" or "Enjoyment Now < Enjoyment 2 minutes ago."
Here is a graph illustrating how too much practice leads us to quit. At the onset, we have an accelerating desire to keep practicing. The line is curving upward. As we approach the peak, we may feel at one with the activity (in Flow), and excited by our power. This is a great feeling, which also always ends. The peak of the curve is about that point, after which there is a rapid downward-acceleration of our desire to keep practicing, and if we push ourselves past that point, we will not want to practice again for a long time. This will fuel our anxiety about Falling Off and will cause us to self-fulfill in a glorious blaze of TV marathons.
This idea of leaving ourselves wanting more is one of those things that people have trouble with. That's partly because we confuse the future with the present: How skilled I am today seems like it represents how skilled I'll be in the future, but it really doesn't, and we forget that.
Leaving ourselves wanting more also goes against much of what we've been taught by our culture. "Push yourself," "Winners never quit," "Life isn't easy," "U-S-A, U-S-A!" These are exactly the types of messages that have made us scared of Falling Off in the first place. When we treat ourselves like machines, forcing ourselves to follow a time-dependent routine (such as 1-hour a day), rather than an energy dependent routine (such as "Practice when I'm excited, and stop while I'm still having fun), it tends to bring out how we are exactly the opposite of machines. That is, when we're forced to do something, we will usually find some way to undermine that force, even (especially) if that force is us.
If the belief that we MUST NOT QUIT (but prolly will) is what's causing us to involuntarily do so ("no time" or "it's boring"), then what happens if we do the opposite of our intuition? Instead of fighting so hard to hold on, what if we step on and step off so quickly that we don't give ourselves a chance to fall?