Books like The Secret and The Power have contributed to the increasing popularity of the idea that wishes can be granted through visualization and positive thinking. This perspective has received significant criticism for its reliance on unvalidated scientific claims, such as its invocation of quantum physics to explain how the mind works, as well as its potential to promote victim-blaming and false hope.
While the claim that beliefs single-handedly determine our physical health, financial status, and chances at finding love is clearly misguided, the idea that beliefs have power does have some scientific validity. It just works a little differently than books like The Secret suggest. Here are three ways that beliefs really can shape your reality.
1. Your beliefs influence your behavior.
One of the most basic ways that beliefs can shape reality is through their influence on behavior—no quantum physics needed. For example, if you believe that you’re capable, competent, and deserving of your dream job, you’re probably more likely to notice and seek out opportunities that could help you get there. You’re also more likely to perform well in an interview. Contrary to the common assumption that overconfidence can backfire, research suggests that it may actually be beneficial: Overconfident people tend to appear more socially skilled and higher in social status, even when those evaluating them have access to objective information about their actual ability.
Beliefs can also influence health behaviors. Research suggests that people are more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors like eating well and exercising if they have a greater sense of self-efficacy—that is, if they believe that they are capable of effectively performing these behaviors. But positive thinking has its limits: Research also shows that people take better care of their health when they think negatively to some extent—when they believe that they are in fact susceptible to serious illnesses. Without awareness of the reality of the risks they face, people may lack the motivation to make healthy decisions.
Beliefs about your basic character—who you are as a person on a fundamental level—can be especially powerful. Research suggests that while guilt (feeling that you did a bad thing) can motivate self-improvement, shame (feeling like you are a bad person), tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, reducing hope and undermining efforts to change. By the same token, some evidence suggests that praising character as opposed to behavior is a more effective means of promoting positive behaviors. For example, in one study, children who were told that they were helpful people for doing something generous (donating some of their marbles to poor children) later engaged in more altruistic behavior than did children whose behavior alone was praised or who did not receive praise.
2. Your beliefs influence other people’s behavior.
Your beliefs can shape your reality not only by influencing your own behavior, but also by influencing other people’s behavior, from close relationship partners to complete strangers. In one classic study, male participants were led to believe that a woman with whom they spoke on the phone was either attractive or unattractive. Analysis of the recordings by outside observers showed that throughout the conversation, women perceived as more attractive came to behave in a more friendly and likeable way than those who were perceived as less attractive, suggesting that participants’ expectations not only shaped their own perceptions of their conversation partner—they also seemed to elicit behavior that confirmed their expectations. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in a number of other contexts as well, including interactions between teachers and students.
Your beliefs may also elicit corresponding behavior from romantic partners. Research suggests that people who see their partners in a more idealized light than their partners see themselves tend to become more satisfied with their relationships over time, experience less conflict, and are more likely to stay together. Why might this be? One explanation is that idealizers instill confidence in their partners and alleviate their partners' insecurities about the relationship. More secure partners are, in turn, more likely to behave in generous and constructive ways, fostering greater relationship satisfaction. By contrast, those who over-perceive hostile intentions in their partners during conflicts are more likely to behave in ways that elicit the very hostility and rejection they fear.
3. Your beliefs may impact your health.
Health and disease are influenced by multiple interacting factors, many of which are not fully under your control, including genetics, exposure to environmental toxins, history of trauma, and socioeconomic circumstances. But research suggests that beliefs matter too. In one study, middle-aged adults who held more positive beliefs about aging lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who held more negative beliefs, even when controlling for current health and other risk factors. In a number of other studies, optimistic people were found to be less likely to develop heart disease, again controlling for other risk factors.
Research on the placebo effect also supports the link between beliefs and health. Remarkably, the mere expectation that a treatment will be effective can sometimes make it so, even if that treatment is just a sugar pill. Although the placebo effect tends to be strongest for subjective reports of symptoms, sometimes in the absence of corresponding physical changes, there is evidence for some objective, measurable effects: For example, placebos can alter patterns of brain activation associated with processing pain, and in Parkinson’s disease, placebos have been shown to elevate dopamine levels, which can temporarily improve symptoms.
How can you harness the power of belief to improve your life? For one, you can engage in practices that change your habitual way of thinking, such as keeping a gratitude journal or learning mindfulness meditation. These practices can help you notice and appreciate the good in life and keep you from getting caught up in unconstructive, negative thoughts. Second, you can set clear intentions for how you want to approach each day and make an effort to align your behavior with those intentions. Even when things don’t go your way, you’ll know that you’re moving in the right direction and using the leverage that you have. And finally, you can recognize that while beliefs may be powerful, they are certainly not all-powerful, and life is full of suffering that we neither invite nor deserve. Recognizing the limitations of belief can make us more compassionate towards those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, including ourselves.