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The Science Behind ‘Fake It Till You Make It’

The latest research shows that acting “as if” can bring out a better you.

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I was robbed at this year’s Oscars: I should’ve won the Best Actor Award for impersonating a fighter. On a cold day this winter I was alone in my gym’s boxing room, working the row of heavy bags like I was taking on a gang of thugs in an action flick. Cut to the door opening, and a guy enters who’s built like The Incredible Hulk. “Is it OK if I use the room?” he said with an awkward shyness. “I was watching you and got inspired. Wish I can be as good as you someday.”

It was the strangest thing anyone had ever said to me. I’d just turned 48, am thin as I was in college (thanks to this), and had only been boxing for a few months. I barely knew the proper way to work a heavy bag. In my mind, you could say, I was faking it. And here was a ripped bodybuilder half my age taking a deferential attitude, as if I were Conor McGregor and owned the territory.

The experience got me thinking. The cliché “fake it till you make it” sounds like the celebration of phoniness and cold ambition. But there’s a kernel of age-old truth inside the shallow-sounding shell. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle said that in order to be virtuous, one must act the way a virtuous person would act. Around the same time, Confucius opined, “Although the gentleman may not have attained goodness, he acts in such a way so that he might become good.”

In fact, “faking it” is a key tool in the branch of psychology called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. “Faking it” is referred to as acting “as if,” and is used as a means of bringing about personal transformation: from wallflower to life of the party, lowly cubicle jockey to vice president, weakling to warrior. Basically, anything that makes you shake your head and say, “That could never happen.”

But thanks to the adaptability of the human brain — research in the discipline known as neuroplasticity — you can become pretty much whatever you can imagine by starting to think, feel and act differently to the point where you actually come to believe it, and it becomes hardwired into your brain circuitry.

YOU CAN START BY IMPROVING YOUR POSTURE

Our hypothetical wallflower/desk jockey/weakling can start by looking at how he or she holds their body, and what signals this sends to themselves and others. The first chapter in “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos,” the new bestseller by psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson admonishes the reader to adopt a heroic posture in life — standing straight with your shoulders back — showing you’re ready to take on whatever the world may throw at you. If you’re a lifelong slouchy slumper, then standing tall could be the first step in acting “as if” you’re more confident and content. “If your posture is poor,” Peterson writes, “then you will feel small, defeated and ineffectual. The reactions of others will amplify that.” But if you hold yourself strong, “People, including yourself, will start to assume that you are competent and able.” Response from others will be more positive, anxiety will be buffered, and you’ll “genuinely increase the probability that good things will happen to you.”

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE

Your new stance and strut will feel funny at first like you’re pretending to be someone else (which you are: you’re pretending to be a better version of yourself). Leadership development coach Shannon Polly knows a thing or two about acting, having studied drama at Yale and working in New York theater for a decade. Bringing about self-improvement often feels awkward, especially when trying on new personality traits that feel like ill-fitting clothes. But new, unexplored territory always feels foreign — even when it’s just new attitudes. “We have an attachment to things feeling natural and authentic,” Polly says, “but it’s a misconception that everything has to feel ‘like me,’ especially since you don’t even know what ‘me’ is, as we’re creating ourselves all the time.”

New thoughts and attitudes are important, but ultimately “acting as if” require just that: action. The subconscious mind keeps track of our identity based on how we act, whether courageous or cowardly. “We’re always observing ourselves to define who we are,” Polly says, “so if we see ourselves acting a certain way, we begin to think we are that way.” One of Polly’s clients was as an “old tech nerd” who got fed up with feeling and being perceived that way. So he changed his appearance, became more assertive, and soon was promoted to a new VP position. What started as role-playing what an executive would look and act like actually resulted in his becoming an executive, as others noted the change and responded to his emergent self. “Once you start acting ‘as if,'” says Polly, “at some point you’ll get validation from other people that they’re seeing that trait, and that’s when it’ll start to feel like you’ve integrated it into your personality.” What feels like phoniness at first simply morphs into a new authenticity.

THE HERO OF YOUR OWN STORY

OK, you might say, you’re willing to try acting “as if” you were the person you wish you could be, but how do you start? New clothes and a hairstyle might get you in the right frame of mind, but don’t doubt the power of words to shape reality. Allison Fallon is a life coach who specializes in coaching writers: people who dream of becoming a published author, or wordsmiths who wrote a best-seller and are now paralyzed with fear over the follow-up. To start enabling personal transformation via the written word, start by envisioning the life you want, say two years from now, and then tell a story of that life with you as the hero. Describe how you wake up in the morning. Where are you living? Who’s in the house with you? How do you spend your ideal day? But remember that when a story is good, the hero never gets what he wants without fear, self-doubt, and constant setbacks. Says Fallon, “Recording a story of the hero — which is you — overcoming obstacles changes the way you think and act, which changes the way you move in the world, and finally the results you’re getting. Mindset is everything: it dictates about how we see ourselves, and how we move through the world.”

Likewise, writing about the bad habits you seek to overcome — say the tendency to get stressed, angry or worrisome — pulls them up from your brain’s limbic system where they’re primal and habitual, Fallon says, and puts them into your “executive” brain, where you can address them objectively and actually begin to wire new neurological pathways. Next thing you know you’re acting “as if” nothing can upset your composure, and someday soon it really won’t. When it comes to money and success, Fallon has clients write a letter to the personification of money, as in “Dear Money,” to dredge up the ingrained beliefs we have going back to our upbringing, such as the notion that money is evil, or that we don’t deserve it. “You find that people have hidden beliefs about money that they didn’t even realize they were carrying,” she says.

FEEL IT, STAY WITH IT, TRACK IT

The goal of acting “as if” is to foster a meaningful experience. Say you’re a low-extroversion person who vows to walk into a mixer pretending that you’re the most fascinating and charming person in the room. A couple of hours later, you’ve got five promising business contacts and three potential dates, the most successful networking event of your life. Now you want that experience to be uploaded to your brain in a way that it will become, so to speak, part of your standard operating system. Self-generating experiences — or acting “as if” — is a great way to give yourself new experiences, says psychologist Rick Hanson, whose latest book Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness is out this month. But in order to bring lasting change, you need to heed the brain-science adage “neurons that fire together wire together.”

“It’s not enough to experience something you want to develop inside yourself,” says Hanson. “You must turn it into a lasting change hardwired into your nervous system. The good news is that the way to do that is very simple. There are three things it boils down to, and that steepen the learning curve: stay with the experience longer, feel it in your body, and track what’s rewarding about it. All that is going to increase the conversion of a passing experience into lasting change in your brain.”

PLAY-ACTING IS HOW WE LEARN

My gym is full of phonies, not just me. There’s an older guy who always does deadlifts and squats with those giant weights that look primarily designed for creating back spasms and broken toes. After a mutual nod one day, I introduced myself and said maybe someday he could teach me how to do that. He chuckled wryly and said he was simply good at faking it. Then there was the rock-climber. I’d long gotten bored going up and down the rock wall, but this guy was fully engaged in developing technique. When he belayed back down to earth, I said he looked pretty good up there and asked what he was working on. You can probably guess the response. “Wow, I’m a total beginner,” he said. “I must be good at faking it.”

Boxer, lifter, climber: I don’t believe any of us was being falsely modest. So what would cause us to grossly discount our skills in the eyes of our peers? It’s probably the curse of adulthood, the flipside of wisdom. As we age, we become wiser about the things we know, and self-critical and overanalytical when it comes to learning new things. Kids never say they’re faking something — the concept isn’t in their heads yet. They say they’re learning, through experimentation and exploration. “We don’t give ourselves enough permission for that,” says coach Fallon. “We think perfect is the goal, when in fact ‘perfect’ is the obstacle in the way of the goal, and we have to give ourselves permission for the learning process to be messy.”

Acting “as if” can be a crucial first step to bring about change, but in the end “faking” something is really just a natural process of learning and personal growth. In “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker says, “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” At time he might have even felt he was faking his way through something he could barely understand. But we the audience — as well as the characters around him — see his gradual change from naive farmboy to Jedi master, guided by the transformative self aspiring toward its highest ideal and fullest potential.