Dec 172008

Do you know what a self-fulfilling prophesy is? It’s a prediction that somehow causes itself to come into being, usually by the knowledge of it. Here’s an example from wiki: “The 1973 oil crisis resulted in the so-called “toilet paper panic.” The rumour of an expected shortage in toilet paper—resulting from a decline in the importation of oil—led to people stockpiling supplies of toilet paper. This caused a shortage, which seemed to validate the rumour.”

In this post I’m going to:

  • give some examples of self-fulfilling prophesies
  • relate them to the field of personal development and beliefs in general
  • discuss how we come up with beliefs about the world and why this is pretty much useless
  • try to come up with a better way of choosing beliefs from Steve Pavlina

Quirkology, a fascinating book on various aspects of the human psyche, talks about the role of self-fulfilling prophesies in our daily lives. “For example a person who expects people to be friendly, may smile more and thus receive more smiles, while a person expecting to be lucky, may enter many more competitions and thus increase their chances of winning.” Bam. This is where personal development (PD) work meets psychology. PD has long recognized the roles of beliefs as not just observations, but as self-fulfilling prophesies.

We tend to imagine ourselves a bit like scientists: we know the “truth” about the world and we simply observe that “truth”, not create it. For example, if I believe other people are just out take advantage of me and the only people I can trust are my family, this belief could have come from my personal experience with others. It could also have been inherited from my family.

Except this is not a scientific observation, such as gravity, in that can’t be affected by the belief I hold. For example, if I do not believe in gravity, it still binds me and my belief does not change it. But if I believe other people are shifty and untrustworthy, I may treat them in a way to suggests to them that they’re untrustworthy, and they’ll act in an untrustworthy way. If I inherited this belief from my family, they may have done the same thing to arrive at this conclusion. And I’ll have plenty of evidence to support this belief using confirmation bias (the human tendancy to seek information that confirms your conclusions or beliefs, not look for “objective” data) or selection bias (ignoring the times when people were trustworthy and instead focusing on when they were untrustworthy). If you feel that you are immune to these biases, I would suggest you reconsider. I have known about these and many other biases for years now and it is a constant battle to fight these for the simple fact that I am a human being and these are pretty much built in. Of course, you could know more than me or better than me, or are simply better than human ;-). These biases do not mean that we’re somehow “imperfect”, there’s good reasons for a number of these biases, usually that as human beings, we’re finite creatures and these biases are a result of that finitary predicament, such as having limited processing power or time. If you’re interested in learning about other biases, I would suggest Quirkology and Influence by Cialdini (one of my favourite books of all time).

We’re learning mechanisms and for the sake of our psychological health we have to attempt to distill some beliefs or theorems about how the world is so we can work within it. However, as I’ve suggested enough, determining how accurately a belief models the world is difficult, because we could have gotten that belief through means that are biased, and if we already have a belief, we can get all the evidence in the world to support it that we want. So, what do you do?

Steve Pavlina suggests that we try out various beliefs. Living with a particular belief gives you a specific experience that looking from the outside in doesn’t, because you’re always looking out from within your current belief. For example, from my recent perspective, when someone says, “making money is easy: you just create and deliver value”, I have to admit I look at them like they’re crazy. However, I’m starting to adopt this belief and trying it out for a while to see how it fits and its becoming more true. Steve Pavlina, then, offers a number of criteria to measure a belief by.

The actual process of belief change usually occurs within the context of a goal you’ve set. For example, if I have a goal to get straight A’s, a belief which says, “I will need to put in 20 hours a week of studying to get that A” is not as effective as, “I can get As while putting in less than an hour a week of studying.” The second belief not only makes achieving this goal easier, but it also encourages me to seek out new ways to fulfill this belief, such as this article from Study Hacks called “The Art of Stealth Studying: How to Earn a 4.0 With Only 1.0 Hours of Work“. I could also find ways to dramatically improve my studying ability. Do you see how this self-fulfilling prophesy is a positive one that can really help me achieve my goals and improve myself? Do you also see that either of the above two beliefs are as “true” as each other, and while I hold one, its “true” and while I hold the other, its also “true”?

I’ve written about the actual specific process of belief change in an article called “Improving Self-Awareness to Achieve Your Goals“.

Finally, this applies at beliefs of all levels of analysis about your life. If you believe life is hard and difficult and everybody is out to get you, it will be so. If you believe life is easy and meant to be enjoyed, it will be so. A common metaphor for beliefs are “lenses” and I think its a powerful one. If you’ve gone to get your eyes checked, the optometrist will put a few different lenses in front of your eyes and ask you which gives you the clearest vision. Think of beliefs as trying out various glasses until you find ones that work well for you.

Sep 282008

A central claim of many personal development works is that if you want to achieve a goal, think how people who already have that goal, believe what those people believe and take actions like people who already have that goal and you will achieve that goal. However, many times it’s not as easy to do as it is to say because you tend to have your own thoughts and beliefs about a given subject or goal that can prevent you from learning the new ones.

Actions, of course, repeated are habits. Find out what the sort of people who have achieved your goal make habits of doing and try to imitate them. There are, however, also habits of thought. Some people habitually think of negative things happening to them and it can just as hard or even harder to break that habit.

However, I would just like to focus on beliefs. Many times you can generate a list of “target” beliefs that people who’ve achieved your goal or are how you want to be hold. However, you are not an empty cup that is simply filled, you have your own beliefs, both about the subject at hand and about many other things besides. Your beliefs, knowledge and thought patterns interlace to form a sort of belief net that all new beliefs have to fit into. If you want to change your limiting beliefs, you may want to learn what your current beliefs about this subject are, what they all mean, what your target belief is and what sorts of resistance you can expect. Enough theorizing, let’s have an example:

My goal is to improve my grades. For that goal I’ve started a 30-day trial to study for 15 minutes every day (it’s going rather poorly) to try to take care of the actions required. I also got a bunch of books on improving my grades and read them, to get an idea of habits to adopt but also to absorb the mindset of having better grades. Then I got to work on my current beliefs and notions about schooling and grades.

I had a lot of false ideas about getting high grades in my head, which btw, is 95+%. I had (and I suppose I still do) have anxiety attached to the idea of getting really good grades, because then I’d feel pressured to keep my grades up to that level, a pressure I don’t want to feel externally. I also believed that to get good grades, I’d have to give up all my time to studying, while this is certainly not the case, last term I did quite well (avg of 80%+) spending very little time studying outside class. I also discovered that I was attaching my sense of identity to being right in class, as well as being smart (which was dependent on not making mistakes, partially, and my grades the other part). I also felt that I wasn’t working hard enough to get good grades, ignoring any sort of strategy, and instead just trying to get down at study 30 hours a week or whatever. I did not have a limiting belief that perfect grades or really high grades are impossible, I just believed that there’s a point of diminishing marginal returns, so that the effort required to go from 80% to 90% may be half what is required to gom from 90% to 95%, and I decided I’m just not willing to put in that much time, since I have no particular goals that require me to have a really high grade. I also discovered that I would often overload myself with all the things I wanted to do so that I would study “right” instead of just doing it.

The target beliefs that were guiding all the above were: I want to achieve good grades in a limited amount of time and effort, while balancing the rest of my life, feeling no stress and general happiness. There’s often resistance to the target beliefs, which in this case was skepticism whether the above was even possibly.

So, essentially, I figured out a lot of my current thinking about grades, figured out the target beliefs and goal and compared my current beliefs to them.

As an aside, my relationship with “intelligence” became very important, because sometimes I believed that intelligence is all you need to get good grades, and that my grades were a reflection of my intelligence and other times I believed it’s just doing the work (it’s a combination of the two). Since I was praised for my intelligence as a child (usually when I was right), I came to believe that intelligence cannot change, that if you’re smart enough, you’ll get really good grades, and I felt bad on some level that I’m not a genius like Will in Good Will Hunting. The other belief I was holding was that intelligence means being right, and that you either get a new concept or you don’t; there’s no in between, which prevented me from pushing through my confusion to learn something if I didn’t get it the first time around. I also came to see my intelligence as fixed (it can change) and that my results were solely based on my abilities, and not my effort. Here’s a quotation from the above New York Magazine that describes me perfectly in this regard:

Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

It’s interesting to look back on my life and wonder if being told I was intelligent has affected things. One of the reasons I used to be so particular about spelling things correctly, forming proper sentences and making sure I’ve got my facts straight is because I wanted to convey the impression that I’m smart, and I had this belief that people who don’t do those things aren’t. I wonder if my interest in science was at all directed by the belief that I am intelligent and intelligent people are into science. I can see that belief causing some people to become dogmatic about science. I sometimes see this pattern in others as well, when they try to assert they’re right because, I believe, they don’t want to seem unintelligent.

A lot of this work was done over a long time, as a series of random epiphanies. You can also journal about it, on a computer or just on paper. Well, I hope this helps.

Main Points:

  • Achieving goals involves thinking, believing and acting in a way similar to how people who have achieved that goal or state of being.
  • Beliefs are an important part of goal achievement but often times the target beliefs cause conflicts or cognitive dissonance with your current goals and you have to work through them to get to the target goals.