What if the stories you make up in your mind create self-fulfilling prophecies?
Sound too fantastic to believe? Well, it’s not a stretch for scientists who study the brain’s self-filtering mechanism known as the Reticular Activating System or RAS.
As we explain in our book Thriving in Business and Life, this phenomenon, sometimes known as the “Subaru Effect”, happens as the RAS searches the endless amount of data your receive throughout each day in order to sort out what you’ve identified as important. So, if you’ve just started shopping for Subarus, it’s highly likely you’ll start seeing them everywhere. They’ve been there all along, of course, but now your brain is actively looking for them.
It’s the same with people and situations. If we think that the person we’re about to meet with is difficult or uncooperative, our RAS will be looking to find their difficult, uncooperative characteristics and highlight them for us. Then, as we accumulate our self-filtered evidence, we become convinced that we were right all along.
So, what’s your story . . . about today . . . or your partner . . . or life?
Have you taken the time to really think about that? To examine the stories you make up and where they’re leading you?
Because whatever your story is, your brain will be doing its able best to prove you right.
Kind of wild, right? So, what do you think of this premise? That the stories we make up help determine what we see . . . and experience . . . and believe?
Want to explore it for yourself?
Okay, for this game, we recommend what’s known as the “scientific attitude,” which has four elements: critical thinking, skepticism, objectivity, and curiosity. So, let’s use those four qualities to explore this question.
First off, in terms of critical thinking, to help you identify what your story is vs. what’s actually real, you can start to examine the facts of a situation vs. what you made those facts mean. For instance, the person you’re about to meet with may ask you a lot of challenging questions and may even make facial expressions that lead you to think they don’t believe you.
You might be right or they may simply be an inquisitive person who really wants to understand your thinking. They might even see themselves as a mentor for you.
That’s just an example, so it will help if you personalize this little experiment . . . that is, if you think of your own specific situation and apply what we’re presenting as you read.
So, to continue with critical thinking, look at the situation you’ve identified and ask: “What result am I getting thus far?”
For our purposes here, you should choose a situation you’re not satisfied with. You don’t like the result and you want to change it or improve it. That’s your starting point, being honest about the results you are experiencing.
Skepticism is healthy; cynicism is not.
When we adopt a skeptical attitude, we will then insist on examining the possibilities from different angles, using critical thinking, to determine what is actually true.
Cynicism, on the other hand, is examining all the evidence with the underlying agenda of proving ourselves right. Cynicism shackles our RAS and makes it a slave to our own bias.
Skepticism saves us from polarized bias because we can be skeptical, even of our own convictions! That’s the true scientific attitude and it can give our RAS a new set of instructions—to find out what is actually true and most productive.
In terms of this question—about the stories we’re making up—this means that we acknowledge we're doing it! And because we do, we aren't entirely objective because we’re interpreting things based on our viewpoint.
See, we can actually be objective about our subjectivity!
Finally, let’s champion the power of curiosity.
Behind every great invention, every great development in society or personally, stands curiosity. This is an attitude of open-mindedness. We don’t believe that we already know everything and we are eager to learn.
Without real curiosity, when we make up a story about some situation or person, we will literally blind ourselves to anything that contradicts the story we’re generating.
For instance, we may discount someone as not having much value to contribute in some situation. That’s our story, so we will then tend to gather evidence that proves this is not just our story, it’s the truth!
Breaking this cycle starts with assessing an unsatisfactory result and asking ourselves, what result do we actually want or need?
From there, we proactively readjust our mindset and create a story that aligns with that result. In the example we just cited, the new result might be to bring out real value in the person we previously doubted.
Our story? I know that person has real value and I’m going to find it and help them utilize it on our team.
Next, we start to live out that new story through our actions. And, bonus time . . . we’ve also given our RAS a new assignment: find the value that this person can bring to our team.
So, does the story you make up about a situation significantly influence what you experience?
Well, find out for yourself with this week’s thriving challenge:
Consider some situation where you’re unsatisfied with the result.
Next, examine your attitude to learn what story you are currently
making up about this person and / or situation?
Now decide what different, better result you’d like and ask this question:
“What new story would I need to make up to help get this new result?”
Finally, follow through with actions that naturally lead to that new result.
What will you do differently because of that new story to achieve new results?
And remember to find yourself an accountability partner to play along with you and to keep you on track. Most of all, have fun with this as you practice.
BTW: We love hearing from our readers and listeners. You can email us and when you do, we’ll send you a link to a free half-hour video program about this very topic, “Creating Stories to Generate Success.”
You can also connect with all of our blogs or podcasts at:
Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding