The Power of Positive Acting


In 1979 Harvard professor Ellen Langer conducted an experiment. She selected a group of men in their seventies and took them to a retreat outside Boston. When the men arrived there was no-one to help them off the bus – and no-one to carry their luggage. Once inside the retreat, they found that it was decorated in the style of the 1950’s. All the newspapers and books were from the 50’s. Langer told the men that they had to spend the week acting as they’d done twenty years previously – in short she wanted them to turn the clock back, and behave accordingly.

The results were astonishing. Several of the men decided they no longer needed walking sticks. Hearing and eyesight improved. Blood pressure came down. Over the course of a week, the men knocked years off their bodies – and their minds.

It was the power of positive acting – not the power of positive thinking. And here’s a question: we’ve all spent years listening to people say ‘change your thoughts and you can change your life.’ Is that just plain wrong?

In another study at the University of California students were asked to visualise themselves getting a good grade in an upcoming exam. The students who did this studied less and ended up with a lower grade. At New York University the students who fantasised most about getting their dream job on graduating ended up with fewer job offers and significantly lower salaries.

Let me at this point pay due credit to my research source, which is an article in the Guardian by Richard Wiseman, based on his book, Rip It Up.

The central thesis is simple – that if you want to change your behaviour your actions are what matter, not your thoughts. If you want to feel happy, smile. It’s as simple as that.

I find this school of thought really interesting – because I think there’s something in it for all of us. The vast majority of us aren’t Duncan Bannatyne – who simply can’t understand why everyone isn’t a millionaire – and we’re not Tony Robbins. As a client said to me, “I’m not sure there’s a giant inside me to awaken, Ed. But I’d like to get the best out of this medium-sized bloke…”

It’s been a consistent theme of this blog that nothing happens without action. In Wiseman’s words, don’t start with what you think, start with what you do. Start to behave ‘as if’ and the results will follow. Here are four examples from his book:

Will-power – studies have shown that tensing up boosts will-power. Next time you’ve something difficult to do (or next time you’re in the sandwich shop trying to resist the flapjack) clench your fist. Press your thumb and first finger together. Research shows that it works.

Dieting – eat with your ‘wrong’ hand. This forces you to think about what you’re doing. No more eating automatically.

Persistence – sit up straight and cross your arms. A study at the University of Rochester showed that students who were faced with a difficult task did better if they sat up straight with their arms crossed. If you’re sitting at a desk all day, trying lifting your computer monitor up.

Negotiation – use soft chairs. Two groups of students at the MIT School of Management negotiated over the price of a car. Those sitting in the hard chairs offered less for the car and refused to negotiate. (Garages of North Yorkshire take note…)

Actions, it seems, not only speak louder than words, they also speak louder than thoughts. I’m not sure we have too many readers in their seventies, but I know there are plenty of strong-willed, thin, persistent, skilled negotiators who read this blog. I await your comments with interest…

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10 comments

  1. Matthew · September 7, 2012

    Another positive process along these lines is that ‘Today’ is a new day – yesterday’s issues and problems don’t need to spoil today.

    Obviously they may still need addressing ‘Today’ but unchangeables and issues that have been resolved should be left where they were.

    Start each new day as a new clean sheet – it can do wonders – and it annoys people who can’t manage to do it – double bonus!

    • edreidyork · September 7, 2012

      Hi Matthew – good to hear from you. This is a great example of “acting” rather than simply “thinking” (or even dwelling on what’s gone). Like your double bonus thinking too!

  2. Sarah Shafi · September 7, 2012

    Bang on Ed! I left school with virtually nothing but a thought that I was thick as s***. I opted for the university of life and got busy. Held down 2 demanding jobs, walked everywhere and partied hard. Didn’t have time to think. My whole life changed.

    It’s a real worry that our leaders of tomorrow are living in a world where they are encouraged to operate in an inert cyber bubble…

    • edreidyork · September 7, 2012

      Hi Sarah – I’m stunned to hear that you partied hard…

      On a slightly less facetious note (!), I know your attitude and actions got you to where you are today – a successful respected business owner. There’s no chance of you living in any inert bubbles, is there?

  3. Mark Campbell (@Osmovian) · September 7, 2012

    Another week, another superb blog Ed. The last two decades of research cognitive science has resulted in us understanding more then ever about how the mind works, the results leans more and more towards actions driving thoughts. The unpacking of how the brain works has lead to countless books on how we take ‘action’ to improve how we think and influence the world around us

    Perhaps the books on how to think better to improve our actions is becoming out dated hokus pokus 🙂

    May I recommend two books by Malcolm Gladwell, called ‘Outliers’ and ‘Blink’. Light reading and well written, with research relevant to this book.

    • edreidyork · September 7, 2012

      Hi Mark – Outliers is a great book – real thought-provoker. And top marks for being the first person to ever squeeze “hokus pokus” into a comment!

  4. Rory Ryan · September 7, 2012

    “The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress!” – Death of a Salesman. Ed, I have to say I did a lot of visualising in the past few years and it is useless without action. Habit 1 – Being Proactive, add in a little visualisation, some salt and pepper and simmer. Lots of stuff begins to happen but without action – nout. ‘nuther good blog Ed! PS. Thanks for the great advice on reeling in a new client yesterday.

    • edreidyork · September 7, 2012

      Hi Rory – that is a top quality quote. And the 7 Habits reference is right as well – thanks as ever for your contributions…

  5. Ayushma · January 11, 2013

    Hi there. I thought holding a happy thought did all the work until I read your blog post. It is an eye-opener as it is based on empirical data. Your posts are very interesting in the way you knit together words to create an image on your reader’s mind. Very inspirational, indeed! 🙂

    • edreidyork · January 11, 2013

      Hi Ayushma – thanks very much – they’re really thoughtful comments. Much appreciated!

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