I’ve been telling you for years that our beliefs determine our behavior and the only way to permanently change our behavior is to eliminate limiting beliefs. An article in Time (“The Optimism Bias,” June 6, pp 40-46) describes an experiment that demonstrates this point and shows the profound impact of beliefs and expectations on our behavior.

The problem with pessimistic expectations … is that they have the power to alter the future: negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way. How do expectations change reality?

To answer this question, my colleague, cognitive neuroscientist Sara Bentsson, devised an experiment in which she manipulated positive and negative expectations of students while their brains were scanned and tested their performance on cognitive tasks.

To induce expectations of success, she primed college students with words such as smart, intelligent and clever just before asking them to perform a test. To induce expectations of failure, she primed them with words like stupid and ignorant. The students performed better after being primed with an affirmative message.

Examining the brain-imaging data, Bengtsson found that the students’ brains responded differently to the mistakes they made depending on whether they were primed with the word clever or the word stupid. When the mistake followed positive words, she observed enhanced activity in the anterior medial part of the prefrontal cortex (a region that is involved in self-reflection and recollection). However, when the participants were primed with the word stupid, there was no heightened activity after a wrong answer. It appears that after being primed with the word stupid, the brain expected to do poorly and did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error.

A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice—wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions, which ultimately affects what happens in the future. (Emphasis added.)

If merely saying or hearing words like stupid and ignorant can produce a measurable negative change in someone’s behavior, imagine what impact beliefs like, Mistakes and failure are bad, I’m not good enough and I’m powerless will have on our behavior.

Positive and negative expectations can be formed solely by beliefs; they also can be formed by conditioning. For example, if you don’t do well at something a number of times, in addition to forming negative beliefs you also can get conditioned to “expect” to not do well in the future.

The implications for parenting

Moreover, this and other similar studies should be additional evidence for parents to realize that their most important job is helping their children to form positive beliefs about themselves, people, and life. (The parenting course created by my wife, Shelly, is the only one I know of that teaches parents how to do precisely that. For information about that course, go to http://www.parentingthelefkoeway.com.)

What do you think about how our beliefs affect our behavior? I’d love to read your comments and questions.

If you haven’t yet eliminated at least one of your limiting self-esteem beliefs using the Lefkoe Belief Process, go to http://www.recreateyourlife.com/free where you can eliminate one negative belief free.

For information about eliminating 23 of the most common limiting beliefs and conditionings, which cause eight of the most common problems in our lives, and get a separate video of the WAIR? Process, please check out: http://recreateyourlife.com/naturalconfidence.

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Copyright © 2011 Morty Lefkoe