Psychology Research to Change Your Life: “Act as If”

Ready to Change - Stop Thinking and Start Acting

“The important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become.” – Charles Dickens

Most of us have some aspect of our lives or ourselves that we would like to change. Perhaps you have a clear vision in your mind of how you would like to be “different” in some way, yet all of the facts and positive self-talk in the world doesn’t seem to be enough to turn your vision into reality. It is not uncommon to know what we could do to be “better” in regards to some aspect of who we believe/wish ourselves to be, yet knowledge and piles of self-help books don’t seem to be enough. These are the times when it is more important take a step back and try a different approach. The first step is to get out of your mind and take action.

Do you really want to change? Attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors are so closely intertwined that the truth about change is that in many ways you can become different when you start acting as if you are different. This concept is at the heart of Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) principle of opposite action.

How to Change Your Life by Choosing New Behaviors

Take a moment to reflect on an aspect of yourself that you deeply wish to change. This type of self-transformation is one that is positive in nature and intended to move you closer toward living your life in accordance with your true values. Consider the person that you believe yourself to be today – in this very moment. Now reflect on the aspects of your core identity that you wish to materialize in your life. Do you wish you were more […..]? You can be. Stop thinking about it and starting acting as if you already are.

(1) Happiness: Smile

Do you wish that you felt happier? Less depressed? You have indirect control over your emotions through consciously choosing new ways of behaving. Research has found that the simple behavioral choice to activate your facial muscles into a smile is enough to genuinely make you feel happier. Even if you feel a bit silly the first time you give this exercise a try, do it anyway! That’s what making actual changes through behavioral choices is all about.

(2) Willpower: Tense Muscles

Research suggests that tensing one’s muscles boosts willpower, impacts the ability to tolerate pain, avoid “tempting” foods, and pay attention to distressing – yet important – information. You can choose to boost your willpower during such moments by temporarily making a fist, firmly gripping a pen in your hand, and so forth. Additionally, research has found that meditation training and physical exercise have been shown to train the brain’s willpower “reserve.” Remember: willpower is both a finite resource to be used wisely and a metaphorical “muscle” that can be strengthened with practice.

(3) Dieting: Use your Non-Dominant Hand

When you choose to consume food by using your non-dominant hand, your mind and body believe that you are engaging in an “unusual” behavior, as opposed to an “automatic” behavior. Research has found that people are more likely to consume food out of habit, even when it is stale/lacks freshness, if they are allowed to consume it in a familiar context and eat with the dominant hand.  If you are trying to implement new/healthy eating habits, consider eating with your non-dominant hand so that you will be more mindfully aware of your behavior. This is one of many ways to engage in mindful eating, which has been shown to lead to successful changes in unhealthy eating habits.

(4) Procrastination: Make a Small Start

In order to move past procrastination and tackle tasks which have piled up around you, it is essential to make that tiny first step in the right direction. If you are having trouble with getting started on a project, be it cleaning out the closet or finishing a major presentation for work, act as if you are truly interested in the task at hand. Make the behavioral choice to force yourself to spend “just a few minutes” on the project that you have been avoiding. It is likely that simply getting going in this way will give you the push that you need to spend more time getting things done.

(5) Persistence: Sit Up Straight & Cross Your Arms

Research findings suggest that when faced with a difficult task, people who sat up straight and crossed their arms persevered for almost twice as long as the others. If you find yourself faced with a problem or situation that requires a bit of perseverance and tenacity, give this behavior a try. When you notice yourself feeling fatigued, frustrated, or like giving up, take a moment to notice your posture. Apply mindfulness to your physical sensations and position as you consciously straighten your spine and increase your alertness in the present moment.

(6) Confidence: Powerful Posture

To increase your sense of confidence and self-esteem, make the behavioral choice to adopt a physical posture suggestive of confidence and power. Research has found that specific “power poses” can actually build up one’s confidence in social settings. Notice what nonverbal cues/messages you are sending to others through the way that you carry yourself. It is quite possible to be unaware that you are sending signals to others that you lack confidence through sitting in a hunched over position or carrying yourself in a way that implies some type of submissiveness. If you would like to feel more confident, act as if you are by making the choice to walk, stand, and sit with postures that suggest confidence for the rest of the day… notice any differences in responses from others and internal shifts in thoughts/emotions.

(7) Negotiation: Use Soft Chairs

The mind and body are connected in many ways that often go under the radar and subtly influence attitudes and behaviors. For example, hard furniture tends to be associated with hard behavior. Research done at MIT found that people who sat in hard chairs were less likely than those who sat in soft chairs to be flexible while negotiating over the price of a used car. In fact, those who sat in the hard chairs consistently offered less and were generally more inflexible than the group that sat in soft chairs. If negotiation is an important aspect of your job or you would simply like to engage in more effective negotiation with a colleague, friend, or loved one, consider taking advantage of these research findings. Rather than approach a conversation involving negotiation in a physically uncomfortable environment, choose to negotiate with others in a place that allows for physical (and perhaps psychological) comfort.

(8) Guilt: Wash it Away

If you find yourself struggling with the emotion of guilt, consider choosing to engage in behaviors that are associated with being “cleansed” of guilt. Research suggests that people who engage in immoral acts or behaviors that make them feel guilty in some way feel significantly less guilty when they clean their hands afterwards. This is yet another example of a simple behavior that – however irrational it may seem to the mind – has a significant impact on changing thoughts and behaviors. It is important to remember that the emotion of guilt may carry important information about behavioral changes that require much more effort than washing one’s hands or taking a shower. Recall the concepts of “justified” vs. “unjustified” guilt in Dialectical Behavior Therapy as you consider how to best respond to the emotion of guilt in the moment.

(9) Persuasion: Nod

If you nod while listening to a discussion, you will be more likely to agree with what is being said. Your physical indication of agreement – nodding – sends the signal to your mind that you really do agree with what you are hearing. When you are mindful of your actions in the moment, you can more readily notice times when you may be subtly convincing yourself of something you are hearing, which provides you with the space to choose whether or not that is what you truly want. This behavior works in the opposite direction as well. If you are interested in persuading others and facilitating agreement, your own subtle nods while you are speaking are likely to inspire others to nod along and increase the likelihood of their agreeing with you.

(10) Love: Open Up

There is a general finding that couples who are in love are more likely than others to discuss intimate aspects of their lives with one another. Interestingly, it is also true that making the choice to engage in more intimate conversation actually increases attraction between individuals. When you allow yourself to become vulnerable with others (without engaging in ill-timed “oversharing“), you are increasing the likelihood of that vulnerability being reciprocated. This form of intimacy through conversation and sharing can be utilized to increase your emotional connections with important people in your life. Rather than waiting for someone to open up a bit more to you, try taking the risk of making the first step in the direction of greater intimacy. Give that which you wish to receive.

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Wiseman, R. (2012, June 30). Self help: Forget positive thinking, try positive action. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jun/30/self-help-positive-thinking

Featured image: change your life by Crystian Cruz / CC BY-ND 2.0

2 Responses to Psychology Research to Change Your Life: “Act as If”
  1. […] research behind the “as if” principle and you can read more about it here: Psychology Research to Change Your Life I’ve used this trick before, when I’ve been in a bad mood or had to do something I […]

  2. […] Laura Schenck, M.A. writes on her “Mindfulness Muse” blog: […]

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