“You think that’s air you’re breathing now?” Morpheus asks Neo in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Matrix. It captures the importance of what we believe, the difference between thinking and knowing better than just about anything else. “Don’t think you are, know you are”, as Morpheus put it. But how important is belief in the real world? Is what Henry Ford said, “whether you think you can, or you think you cannot — you’re right” really true? Is there any science behind this?
The case of the drowning rats
Sheena Iyengar is one of the world’s top authorities on the subject of choice (her own story is quite remarkable). In her book, “The Art of Choosing” (which I highly recommend) she talks of Curt Richter, a psychobiologist at Johns Hopkins University. In 1957, Richter ran an experiment to study the effect of water temperature on endurance in rats3. To do so, he and his team put rats in a jar half filled with water at different temperature, one rat per jar. The jar walls were too high for the rats to climb out, and his team kept “hosing” them down with jets of water whenever they did try to climb out. In Iyengar’s words, the rats were quite literally in a sink or swim situation. What he observed was that regardless of the temperature of the water, some of the rats swam for 60 hours, while others drowned in 15 minutes. Just to put that into perspective, 60 hours is about 2 and half days. It was almost as if some rats just gave up within 15 minutes while others went on until they just could not. To verify, he changed the experiment by occasionally “rescuing” the rats by pulling them out of the water for a few minutes before putting them back in. The rats now were trained to be rescued. And just about all rats swam for an average of 60 hours (or two and a half days) before drowning.
The rats were genetically and physically identical. None of them had any physical training more than the others, or went through social issues that we know of. Yet, some would just give up, while others would go on and on, to the true limits of their endurance.
At this point, feel free to do what I did and take a few seconds and let that sink in (no pun intended). Think back to every time you thought something was too hard, or you were too exhausted. Were you really?
How do you perceive the world?
What defines the chances of success in attaining a goal? For any goal, there is how hard the goal actually is and, how hard you perceive the goal to be. Here again, research points to the importance of belief. Self-efficacy, a measure of how our belief in our abilities to overhaul the goal, is touted as one of the key variables defining success in attaining goals2 . When pursing a goal, temporary failure is inevitable and self-efficacy defines how we bounce back from it. But that is not all, the same belief also defines behavior when we obtain feedback on performance on a goal. Perceiving feedback as negative lowers chances of success, while positive perception gives the push towards success2.
But what does this mean?
In conclusion, belief is a primal function of our brain and it is trainable. It happened with Richter’s rats, and goal setting research has a number of pointers to it as well. We know we are born without limits and that we can train to push ourselves past the perceived limits. We will get into training belief in a future post. But for now, know this, “whether you think you can or you cannot, you’re right”.
Is your belief or self-efficacy keeping you from your goals? From becoming your infinite self? Please share your feedback by leaving a comment below.
1) Locke, E.A. (1996) Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5, 117-124.
2) Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
3) Richter, Curt P. “On the phenomenon of sudden death in animals and man.” Psychosomatic Medicine 19.3 (1957): 191-198.