Every time I read a book or listen to a podcast or browse a website about self-improvement, I inevitably come across the same idea – that you attract whatever it is you focus on. In other words, if you think negative thoughts you’ll always be unlucky, whereas you should think positive thoughts to attract good things into your life.
I don’t know what it is about me (my need to label things, I guess), but I wasn’t satisfied with this tip. I felt like it was thrown around too many times without ever being fully explained. It’s easy to say, “To be happy, you just have to do X” without saying why or how it works. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised yesterday while listening to a psychology podcast to hear the theory explained.
It’s called “confirmation bias“. Essentially, what it means is that people are automatically biased towards confirming their existing beliefs. Several studies conducted during the 1960s showed that people will register the evidence that supports their theory and neglect or disregard the evidence that conflicts with it. Why? Because we simply don’t want to be wrong.
Applying that to our own situations, if we tell ourselves that we have great lives, it’s not that our lives will suddenly change overnight, it’s that we’ll suddenly start seeing the good and ignoring the bad. We’ll want to be right so badly that our brains will collect as much evidence as possible to support our belief. We bias our brains to confirm our theory.
Did you ever notice how, when you have to be up early the following morning, you worry that you won’t get enough sleep and then, sure enough, you’re still staring at the ceiling at 3am? All of a sudden, you’re a “bad sleeper” and you’re “tired all the time”. Every time you feel run down, your brain says, “Aha! I told you so”.
Now, did you ever notice how, when you advise your partner/spouse/child/colleague to do something a certain way, they ignore you and do it their way and then it invariably goes wrong? And then they try it your way and it works? Yup, there’s that “Aha! I told you so” moment again, and now your brain is telling you that you’re a genius and that you know the best thing to do in any given situation. Yup, there’s that confirmation bias again, only this time it’s for something positive (assuming you don’t let your ego get to you too much).
So now I know the science behind it… and you do too! If you tell yourself that things are a certain way, your brain will help you out. Nifty, huh? Next time you catch yourself in a negative thought, stop and ask yourself if what you’re thinking is really the case. Does it really always start raining as soon as you leave the house? Really? Stop right there and tell yourself, “It’s great that it stays dry when I have to leave the house”. Now you’re noticing and celebrating the dry days, not blowing out of the proportion the odd rainy day.
So I’ll tell you what every other self-improvement book/podcast/website will tell you – focus on the positive and your life will improve. But at least now you know the why and the how, so you’re much better equipped to actually implement it.
Try it and see!