Wednesday, 13 July 2016

What stories do you tell yourself?

How suggestible are you?

Many people believe they are not at all suggestible.  They laugh at the idea that the TV ads can influence them and get them to buy something they hadn't already planned to buy.  They watch Derren Brown or Wayne Hoffman and laugh at the way people are influenced by these mentalists, knowing there is no way they would be caught out like that.

The reality, though, is that we are all suggestible.  We are VERY suggestible.  All of us.  This is not actually a weakness but rather a strength.  An essential element of our personality.

Why do I claim this?  Life presents us all the time with so many stimuli that it is impossible for us to take them all in before making a decision on the "right" way forward.  Nature has taught us to be reactive.  If we were not, we would mentally explode.  So we often have to make our decisions with very little background information.  Not because the information is unavailable but because there is too much there to analyse.  We have to act fast in so many situations, too fast to take much notice of the facts that perhaps should be influencing our decision.  Life is too complex for us to keep analysing all the alternatives before deciding on what actions to take.  So we go by our "gut reaction", our basic intuition.  Having made our decision we then convince ourselves that we DID analyse the alternatives and made a logical choice.  The decision was not really made logically, but it is important for our self-image to believe it was.  

One very well-known pyschological experiment consists of showing someone a series of photos of a member of the opposite sex and asking them to choose the one they found the most attractive.  The experimenter then uses some sleight of hand, swapping the photo the person chose for a completely different photo.  The person is then asked to talk about which features in this person they particularly found attractive.  You would expect that, having chosen someone completely different, they would look down at the photo and say something like "Hey!  This is a different photo!  I can't tell you what I found attractive in this person, as this is not the person I chose!"  Some do, but very few.  Most actually select features in this new person which they say made them choose him or her in preference to all the others.  Maybe, for example, a man chose a blonde lady but now has in front of him a photo of a brunette.  He now says that one of the reasons he chose her is because he likes brunettes.  There has been no Derren Brown or Wayne Hoffman trick here, using different verbal triggers to make someone who likes blondes change and like brunettes.  All that has happened is that the photo has been swapped, and the man thinks he chose the brunette, so he now tells the experimenter he prefers brunettes.

What is happening here?  What is happening is that, having made a particular decision (or thinking he has made that decision) the man in this experiment is now justifying it to himself by telling himself a "story".  In that story, he prefers brunettes to blondes, even though if you had asked him before the experiment he would have told himself that he preferred blondes to brunettes.

An even more powerful example of this is an experiment conducted in a Scandinavian country at the time of an important election.  The two main parties had quite different sets of beliefs.  Rather like Democrats and Repbulicans in the US, or Conservative and Labour in my own country (the UK).  The experimenter gave the volunteer subjects two sheets of paper listing a number of different ideals.  Each set of ideals related to one or other of the two parties.  The volunteer was asked to pick which set of ideals he or she most identified with.  As would be expected, typically the subject picked the set of ideals that related to the party he or she had previously supported.  Again there was some sleight of hand, and the sheets were swapped.  The subject was now asked to justify why he or she believed in those particular ideals.  Again, you would expect that most would look at the listed ideals and think "this is not me!  I don't believe that!", but that is not what happened.  Most of the subjects proceeded to justify why they had picked these ideals (even though they hadn't done so!).  Effectively, the experimenter had changed the political beliefs of the subjects simply by making them believe that they had picked a different set of ideals.  The subjects then had to tell themselves a story that they believed things which before the experiment they had simply not believed.

Once you start telling yourself a story like that it becomes more and more powerful.  The effect it has on you can be negative, neutral or positive.

Your "story" may be that you are a smoker.  You just keep telling yourself that, and that you enjoy smoking, and this then justifies the actions you now take (buying and smoking cigarettes).  You tell yourself that this is you, the real you.  That you don't want to stop smoking because smoking is part of who you are.  You can choose to tell yourself this story, and if you do it will then define the real you.

But someone else may now change their story.  They tell themselves that they don't enjoy smoking, that it is a filthy habit, and that they don't want to keep doing it.  That the real "me" is a person who doesn't smoke.  Just by keeping telling themselves this new story they are no longer a smoker and they find it comparatively easy to stop smoking.

Your "story" may be that you are no good at making money.  That you have tried lots of different ways in the past and that they have always failed.  That it is impossible for you to make money.  That nothing you try will ever work for you.  If you keep telling yourself this story it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead, you need to tell yourself the story that you can now make money.  That all you have to do is start taking action and you WILL make money.  That the real "you" is a person who knows how to make money and does make money.

Tell this story properly and it will happen, whether it is about stopping smoking, making money, having a wonderful relationship, getting your "dream" job, or whatever else it is you want.  Why?  Because that is the way nature wired us all.  We are all suggestible.  We all change to fit whatever story it is we are telling ourselves.

Learning how to tell the story properly, how to avoid telling it so badly that your subconscious does not believe it - well that is another matter.  The good news is there is plenty of material out there and plenty of good coaches who can help you do it properly.  The key step is first to decide you want to change the stories you are telling yourself.  Take that step, start telling yourself the right stories, and your life can change in previously unimaginable ways!