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.