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When Is It OK to 'Fake It Till You Make It'?

Why pretending can be helpful in psychology but toxic in business and politics.

Key points

  • “Faking it till you make it” can be very powerful in behavioral health treatment.
  • Unfortunately, the adage has been conscripted by people in business, industry, and politics.
  • There is a gigantic difference between "faking" courage when phobic and pretending to know how to pilot a plane.

I was recently interviewed by a columnist at The Washington Post. She found a post of mine from 2010 about similarities between AA and CBT. Specifically, the adage "fake it till you make it.” She was interested in understanding how such a notion can be so powerfully helpful in mental health treatment yet so toxic in other contexts, like business and Silicon Valley.

This is what I offered: In the mental health space, the saying of "fake it till you make it” has a very narrow and specific meaning. It is most usually directed towards a specific behavior or pattern of behavior that people engage in—ones that do not serve their overall best interests and might be described as maladaptive. Hence, people are often encouraged to “fake” specific actions that they would like to eventually feel are genuine, and thus actually experience the positive feelings that are part of the “act.” Indeed, my pithy maxim "your head and heart will follow your feet” is one I have been invoking for my entire professional life. As well as "act as if," which is another way of saying it.

Naturally, this notion is emphasized in a great deal of behavioral and cognitive behavioral psychology, as well as their more recent derivatives such as DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy. One of the central tenets of this is “opposite action.” For example, when people suffer from irrational anxieties and phobias, they are often advised to expose themselves to their anxiety triggers rather than avoid them or escape from them. In other words, behaving opposite to how they feel; that is, “faking it“ by acting as if they were not anxiously avoidant.

Similarly, encouraging clinically depressed people to engage in activities, involvements, and more movement is usually a very helpful method called behavioral activation. Again, encouraging people to act opposite to their negative emotions and “fake“ the behavior of their undepressed selves usually helps loosen depression’s grip on them.

So in behavioral psychology, the idea of "act as if" and “fake it till you make it" can be a pivotal therapeutic intervention. This is simply because it is much easier to act ourselves into feeling better than to think ourselves into feeling better, or be talked by someone into feeling better.

But in terms of business, financial, industrial, and public trust matters, the adage of “fake it till you make it” is usually disastrous, and often an indication of rampant institutional sociopathy and personal narcissism. This corrupted use of the term is mostly based on the tendency for many people to pretend they know something even when they don’t. But it is also an increasingly popular adage in the technology sector in which many innovators are pushing products as functional prototypes that are years away from fruition. Even worse, some people are blatantly misrepresenting and overstating ideas, software, and devices due to sheer sociopathic greed in an effort to extract money from “early investors.”

So, the difference between faking courage, even while afraid, or mustering the energy to engage in a social event, despite being horribly unmotivated, and faking flying a jet, practicing medicine, having created a revolutionary product, or being president of the United States is so enormous that it would seem to defy explanation.

But in essence that is the difference. “Faking it until you make it“ in a behavioral health context, versus “faking it till you make it“ in a shameless and financially manipulative ploy to promote a strawman living in a house of cards for one’s financial or social gain. We have a few recent examples of the societal danger and personal folly of “faking it“ outside of psychological treatment—Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos fame, for instance, or Samuel Bankman-Fried of the disgraced d FTX cryptocurrency exchange (more suitably “curruptocurrency”).

Remember: think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright 2023 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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