Happiness, love, confidence: Can you act your way to a better life?

Fake it till you make it. Studies show that physical behaviour can literally change your state of mind.

By Albert Nerenberg, Host/Director, You Are What You Act

Fake a smile, research suggests, and you get some of the emotional benefits of smiling. If you fake a laugh, you may trigger real laughter and feel the world is a funnier place.

If you fake confidence, somebody might mistake you for a big deal or at least take you more seriously at a meeting. Faking love can create or even deepen genuine feelings of love in couples says American psychologist Robert Epstein.

According to a Harvard study, you may even be able to slow the aging process by just horsing around and acting more like a young person.

Clearly acting is all around us, something notably observed by William Shakespeare in As You Like It: “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” the now-famous saying goes.

The documentary You Are What You Act explores the science behind the way the movements of our bodies affects our minds, known as embodied cognition.  Does the way we act change the way we see the world?

Professor Lakoff, considered the father of embodied cognition says, “all thought is physical. If there were no connections between the brain and the body, what would you think about?”

Let’s be clear. In many cases, “faking it till you make it” can be a total disaster. Research and common sense show that it can backfire horribly and we certainly hope that airline pilots, crane operators and surgeons are not faking it. 

But we’re not talking about that here. This “fake it” represents the subtle art of leading with a smile, putting your best foot forward, looking on the bright side, puffing up your chest, keeping your chin up. 

MORE: What to practice faking it? Try it out on the You Are What You Act website.

There are many studies that show a subtle “fake it till you make it” effect, but how does it actually work? There are several theories.

Priming a new behaviour

Josh Davis, a neuroscience researcher, author and founder of the Embodied Cognition Lab at Columbia University explains one possibility — priming. Priming is a psychological concept that suggests that just referencing a behaviour tends to induce the actual thing. So even a fake smile, just reminds the person of “smiley” things or causes them to remember real reasons to smile.

Priming could explain how a Yale study showed that when people held hot or cold beverages in their hands, they tended to have correspondingly warm or cold feelings about the person sitting in front of them. The effects are subtle, of course.

Power posing

Others believe “fake it till you make it” has a biochemical basis. Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy shot to fame with a famous TED talk partly based on her own research.

She claims that there are measurable increases in blood testosterone within two minutes of assuming a power pose. If someone just acts confident, by assuming the “Wonder Woman Pose” with their hands on their hips and their shoulders out, their body chemistry changes to make them appear and feel more powerful.

However, when several studies were unable to replicate Cuddy’s testosterone effect, her theory was thrown into question. Subsequent studies showed that power posing definitely increased feelings of power, although the effects on hormones have not been proved.

Still, it’s no surprise that power posing has been embraced by the wider public. There are power posing courses for job seekers, lawyers and women. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently power posed with his daughter in his office.

Heroic Imagination

Author Philip Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame, recently coined the expression heroic imagination. The idea is that people who act out heroically, often have images of what they can do already in their minds. That would explain why action movies stars often perform heroic rescues in real life. 

Actors like Tom Cruise, who has famously been involved in six real-life rescues, literally become their action hero roles because they have played the part so many times. 

While priming, biochemistry and heroic imagination are all intriguing, there is one last explanation.

Mirroring behaviour

In You Are What You Act, San Diego professor Robert Epstein explains that it’s possible to hack love. This flies in the face of conventional thinking where love is seen as a random act, not under our control. 

Some of Epstein’s work is predicated on research that shows that couples in love tend to mirror each other. So could practising mirror behaviours promote genuine feelings of love? One of his techniques, eye gazing, is buttressed by a number of studies showing that, even as an exercise, it promotes feelings of compassion and empathy. In fact, Epstein claims, eye gazing can actually make people fall in love.

But does that bring us any closer to understanding why faking it works?

For my money, yes.

How Tom Cruise — and other Hollywood actors — have become heroes in real life
“I can make just about anyone fall in love,” claims American psychologist

The reason fake smiling works is that when we smile, natural empathy often causes other people to smile back at us, unlocking the magical warmth of natural smiling. We may even trigger ourselves to think we have something to smile about. We are built to both give and receive smiles, due to our empathic natures. We are also built to share laughter and love.

Faking it till you make it might just be about giving the better parts of us a little nudge. Gaming the system a little in our favour. Someone has to take the first step or make the first move. Maybe in the end, “faking it till you make it” is simply an act of hope that today will turn out well.

Watch You Are What You Act.



Available on CBC Gem

You Are What You Act

documentary Channel