Jamie Grill—Getty Images
By Eric Barker
October 25, 2014
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

In her book Counterclockwise, Harvard professor Ellen Langer recounts a groundbreaking study she did in 1979 that has since become the stuff of legend.

She took a group of male research subjects in their 70s and 80s on a retreat. The environment had been manipulated to make it seem as if it were 20 years prior.

The residents were all aware of the real year, but being immersed in the world of 1959 and encouraged to act as if they were younger men had powerful effects on them:

The experimental group showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished, and they were able to straighten their fingers more) and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63% of the experimental group improved their scores, compared to only 44% of the control group. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait and posture. Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos taken of the participants at the end of the week with those submitted at the beginning of the study. Those objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.

Other research shows that people who held positive beliefs about getting older lived 7.5 years longer and were healthier.

Women who dye their hair not only report feeling younger, but also their blood pressure drops and they are rated as looking younger in photosphotos where their hair is cropped out.

“Will to live” has been shown to make a difference in when you die.

Langer cites studies showing that women with younger spouses live longer and those with older spouses die younger. How we think about aging affects how we age:

The psychologist Bernice Neugarten suggested that we are deeply influenced by “social clocks” that we gauge our lives by the implicit belief that is a “right age” for certain behaviors or attitudes.

Our mind may have more control over our body than we think. Processes we long believed to be out of our control, like heart rate and blood pressure, proved not to be.

Via Counterclockwise:

In 1961, Yale psychologist Neal Miller suggested that the autonomic nervous system, which controls blood pressure and heart rate, could be trained just like a voluntary system, which allows us to raise and lower our arm and other deliberate acts. His suggestion was met with a great deal of skepticism. Everyone knew that the autonomic nervous system was just that, autonomous and beyond our control. Yet his subsequent work on biofeedback — which makes autonomic processes such as heart rate visible by hooking people up to monitors — found that people could be taught to control them.

Radiolab did an amazing piece explaining how exhaustion is more in the mind than the body and how athletes manipulate this to complete marathons and Ironman competitions.

How strong is the power of belief in our lives? Can we make our lives better by changing what we believe?

Placebo Effect

We’ve all heard of the placebo effect. If I give you a sugar pill and tell you it’ll improve X, X often improves just because you believe the pill is working.

The placebo effect means that voodoo curses really can kill you, Axe body spray can make men sexier, and fake steroids can make you stronger. What’s truly amazing is that the placebo effect can work even when you know it’s a placebo.

The placebo effect might even have a role in exercise and health. Four weeks after being told their efforts at work qualified as exercise, female research subjects had lost weight and were healthier compared with a control group. Researchers speculate that believing something is exercise may make it have the results of exercise.

In Counterclockwise Langer cites studies that showed that when a medical therapy was believed in, it was 70% to 90% effective but only 30% to 40% effective when the patient was skeptical. Subjects exposed to fake poison ivy developed rashes, and fake caffeine spiked heart rate and motor performance.

Priming

Priming is when you’re unconsciously influenced by a concept and it affects how you behave.

There has been a torrent of priming studies in recent years showing just how much words and ideas in our environment can affect how we act:

And these aren’t just theoretical. They can be used to improve performance.

Being primed to feel happy before a challenge can make us perform better. Thinking about college professors before a test can get you a better grade.

Overconfidence

I’ve posted before about the multitude of benefits a little delusion can offer:

Optimism

Just believing you can become smarter and can become a better negotiator have both been shown to increase improvement.

Optimism is associated with better health and a longer life. It can make you happier. The Army teaches soldiers to be optimistic because it makes them tougher and more resourceful. Hope predicts academic achievement better than intelligence, personality or previous grades.

Being socially optimistic — expecting people to like you — makes people like you more. Expecting a positive outcome from negotiations made groups more likely to come to a deal and to be happy with it.

Dangers of Too Much Belief

Being totally delusional, paranoid or believing in things that are patently untrue is obviously not good. I’m not recommending that.

Optimism can blind us. The happiest people and the most trusting people both had suboptimal outcomes. Those who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to give in to temptation. The reason you can predict your friends’ behavior better than they can is that we are all realistic about others’ actions and optimistic about our own. Some priming studies have been disputed.

Recommendations

So what can we do to improve our lives with belief? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Manipulate your context to feel younger and feel better. You don’t need to make it look like 1959, but don’t act as if your surroundings don’t matter.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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