For many years advocates of positive thinking have preached a simple message: thought precedes action, so if we want to become more successful, the first thing we need to do is change the way we think. We’re told that we can do this by changing what we say to ourselves when talking to ourselves (so-called self talk). Over the course of our lives, so they tell us, we’ve heard far more negative messages about ourselves than positive. So if we want to be happy, rich and successful we need to counteract this by starting to talk to ourselves in a positive way.
It all makes good sense, but the truth the matter is that of the millions of people who’ve tried this only a small percentage have achieved the results they were hoping for. The experience of most of us is that when we start talking positively to ourselves we get a big boost initially, but after a while we begin to lose enthusiasm and the effect wears off – like going on a diet or going to the gym. Then we gradually give up on the positive self talk and slide back to our old habits and ways. And in the end, nothing much has changed.
So what does the latest scientific research say? Does the notion that we can do things to change our personality and become more positive people have any scientific basis?
Professor Elaine Fox has spent the last ten or so years working in this area at Essex University. One of the tests she uses is designed to test of a person’s optimism. From a business point of view that’s pretty exciting as optimism is one of the key qualities of a successful entrepreneur. As business people we need to identify opportunities others can’t see, we need to get up quickly when we’re knocked down and we need to have an unshakeable belief that we will prevail in the end.
In Prof Fox’s text two faces flash up on a computer screen, one happy and one angry. People with an optimistic view of life tend to respond more quickly to the happy face, whilst pessimists tend to respond more quickly to the angry face. The differences are measured in thousandths of a second, but in brain terms that’s nevertheless both measurable and significant.
What’s happening in this test? As human beings we view the world through the lens of our own biases and prejudices. So if we’re optimists we tend to zone in on the positive. And if we’re pessimists we tend to zone in on the negative. This is reflected in the response times to Prof Fox’s images. In psychology these biases and prejudices are associated with established neural pathways. Neural pathways are high-speed connections between different areas of the brain which have a significant impact on how we respond to situations and experience. They’ve developed over time as we’ve grown as people and can almost be equated with our character or destiny.
By attaching electrodes to the subject’s skull while they were taking the happy/angry face test Prof Fox was able to measure electrical activity in different parts of the brain. This has revealed that people with an optimistic disposition employ a common set of neural pathways (or brain circuitry) whilst taking the test, whilst people with a pessimistic disposition employ a different set of neural pathways, one associated with a more negative outlook on the world.
The really exciting bit is that Prof Fox and her colleagues have taken this one stage further by developing a tool called Cognitive Bias Modification. This is a simple computer game in which the player is required to pick out the happy face from a collection of faces showing different expressions. Before and after tests have shown that playing this game over a period of weeks can actually help someone with a pessimistic outlook develop brain circuitry associated with an optimistic disposition ie Prof Fox has produced scientific evidence that we can actually change our personalities through positive action.
I find this prospect enormously liberating. All of a sudden we are no longer prisoners of our personalities, but have the freedom to develop the personality that we want.
Unfortunately, Cognitive Bias Modification is still under development and is not yet available for use outside the controlled conditions of the laboratory. Let’s hope that it will be soon… Or am I being too optimistic?