As-if thinking – does Batman use Zoom?

Is there anything about yourself that you would like to improve to have more success in everyday tasks? Would you like to have more courage, more will power, more empathy?

If you would, maybe you could try a psychological technique known as “as-if thinking” where you imagine yourself as-if you were a person with the character traits you desire1. Playing the role of someone with these traits seems to go a long way to actually acquiring the traits themselves. 

The Amazing Erik 

As anyone who has spent more than about half an hour with me is likely to know, I used to be a street performer. This was initially a great challenge for me, as I am naturally quite introverted. However, during my student years, riding an 8-ft. unicycle and juggling fire was a lot more lucrative than working in a bar, so I was driven to overcome my fear and find a way to get comfortable showing off in front of large groups of strangers.

The technique I used turns out to be a form of as-if thinking. I created an alter-ego for myself: the Amazing Erik. That guy was an extrovert, he didn’t feel awkward demanding attention and he was certainly not afraid to get up in front of people, project his voice and work a crowd. Before a performance I would be crippled with anxiety, but when it was showtime I would assume his persona and the nerves would disappear.

The development of this persona has also helped me through my professional life. I have not yet cracked out the fire sticks during an actuarial presentation, but the extra confidence I find by thinking as-if I was him has been invaluable. It has helped with interviews, conference speaking, client meetings and I doubt I would have passed my actuarial communications exam without him. 

What the papers say

As-if thinking is a topic of some focus in the psychological literature. Demonstrating similar results to my experiences, is a study where introverted subjects were asked to pretend to be extroverts and carry out certain tasks. Following this exercise, the subjects tested stronger for many extroverted traits, suggesting that they had actually taken on some extroverted characteristics (at least for the duration of the study).

Another interesting example is a child developmental study, where children were given a mundane task to complete for as long as possible. Some children were asked to assume an exemplar alter-ego (such as Batman) while completing the task. The group using this technique stuck at the task significantly longer than the other groups. Acting as-if they were Batman, seemed to go some way to making them act like Batman! (I don’t actually recall Batman repeatedly pushing a button in front of a group of developmental psychologists in the movies, I presume it’s an obscure story line from one of the comics. Perhaps Robert Pattinson will bring it to the big screen.)

A particular form of as-if thinking, known as Behavioral Activation Therapy has also been suggested as a way to deal with depression and anxiety: adopting a routine of someone who is not depressed may help relieve some of the symptoms.

In good company

I’m not alone in using as-if thinking to overcome stage fright. A whole host of pop stars have invented alter-egos for themselves to help play the right part on stage. Reg Dwight became Elton John, Beyoncé channels Sasha Fierce, David Bowie performed as Ziggy Stardust and Marshall Mathers seems to have found the technique so useful that even his alter-ego has an alter-ego2.

Another popular application of as-if thinking is to pick someone whose behavior you wish to emulate and ask yourself what they would do in your shoes. Of course, you may need different role models depending on the task at hand. If you want to publish some life tables based on sound demographic data: What would Edmund Halley do? If you need to pluck up some courage to rescue a pair of Canadian TV stars: What would Brian Boitano do? (Warning: Don't click this link if you're offended by South Park). And if it’s raining outside and you’re struggling for motivation to go for a run: What would Douglas Anderson do?

The longevity effect

We are constantly bombarded with suggestions for how to live healthier lives and increase our longevity: eat more fruit and vegetables, drink less, do more exercise, give up smoking. It can be very difficult to keep up with all these behaviors, but perhaps we can call on the power of as-if thinking to help. Next time I’m in a restaurant maybe I should order as-if I’m someone else. The question is, will I be able to channel an exemplar like Zlatan Ibrahimović3 or will I end up ordering like Homer Simpson?

Does Batman use Zoom?

Since around mid-March, the pandemic has made in-person meetings and presentations pretty much impossible. The mass move online has had many positives. Presenting using web technology greatly reduces time spent, cost and environmental impact compared to face-to face meetings. With the professional world embracing online meeting software, we can now fit many more meetings into a day, presenters can reach larger audiences and audiences have a wider selection of content to choose from.

However, I don’t think this move is entirely positive. Presenting over Zoom has its own challenges. First, when presenting, I find I have to work even harder to engage an audience, who seem to be battling many more distractions including the constant temptation of double-screening. Second, I find raising my energy levels for a presentation to be much harder without the social interaction of seeing people in the flesh and I am sorely missing the spark I get from being around other people. Third, the ease of which we can switch between meetings now tends often to result in a full day of back to back ‘performances’, which quite frankly can be exhausting!

These fresh working challenges mean that the Amazing Erik is no longer such an ally for public speaking… but as-if thinking is still getting me through. My Zoom-shirt has become my costume4 and I now use the technique to speak into my headset as-if there is a packed auditorium in front of me. A technique I adopted to overcome intimidation by the crowds at the Edinburgh festival 20 years ago is still helping me now, alone in my apartment in Jersey City, bellowing into my laptop.

1 I first encountered the name of this technique on an excellent podcast with Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth called No Stupid Questions

2 Marshall Mathers is the real name of famous US hip-hop artist, Eminem. Eminem used to perform with five other rappers in a group called D12. The 12 represented each member of the group plus an alter ego for each of them, developed to allow them to be less inhibited with their rhymes.

3 As explored in previous blogs (here and here) Zlatan Ibrahimović is a Swedish professional soccer player and is Sweden's top ever goal scorer. He famously takes very good care of himself, as demonstrated by the fact that he is currently 38 years old and is still playing professional soccer in the top division in Italy. 

4 and in many ways has become the lockdown equivalent of dressing for the job you want.

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