Doubting Resilience Undermines Resilience

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford

Imagine a stressful everyday situation—being late to a meeting, giving an important presentation, or taking an exam.  Your perception of your ability to cope shapes how you will actually cope. If you believe you are up to the task, you are more likely to rise to the occasion.

The benefits of an “I Can” attitude

Perceiving a stressful situation as a challenge to rise to rather than a threat that will subsume you decreases anxiety, boosts attention, and increases performance. An “I Can” attitude, as psychologists call it, makes it easier to navigate difficulty. It also makes people more likely to embrace opportunities and pursue new goals. If you think it’s possible to achieve something, you’re more likely to go for it and more likely to persist, even when you encounter road bumps along the way. When you don’t believe in yourself, you are more likely to choke, flail, or avoid the stressor altogether. Self-doubt becomes self-fulfilling.

The three sentences “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” from the beloved children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, capture the essence of what is known as self-efficacy theory. Self-efficacy is a belief in your capacity to take action, to complete tasks, and to reach goals. It’s more than thinking you can, it also entails acting on those beliefs and taking concrete steps to transform those hopes into reality.

Given the benefits of an “I Can” attitude, it’s worth exploring how this kind of mindset can be cultivated. A pilot study recently found that students who spent just 35 to 40 minutes in an online course did just that. The “I Can” intervention emphasized 5 key features:

  1. That the brain has a capacity to change and grow—i.e. how the brain’s structure and malleability make an optimal foundation for learning and development.
  2. The importance of effort and long-term commitment in increasing skills, knowledge, and becoming an expert.
  3. Having a “not yet” mentality, and recognizing that additional training is essential to further refine skills and master future challenges.
  4. The importance of passion—defined as a strong interest in an area, theme, or skill. They highlighted how passion is an important motivational force providing necessary focus to achieve long-term goals. With this in mind, students were encouraged to spend time on things they enjoy to develop their passion.
  5. The intervention concluded by prompting participants to reflect on their learning experience by creating a scenario where they offered advice to fellow students struggling with a difficult subject.

Participants in the study reported greater persistence and belief in their ability to achieve their goals. “When people develop stronger belief in themselves or ‘self-efficacy,’ it is almost as if a switch is flipped,” explained lead researcher Hermundur Sigmundsson.

The power of positive expectations

Believing in your ability to succeed matters. So does having others believe in you. A classic study highlights how we tend to live up to what’s expected of us and how a “You Can” attitude can be transformative. As part of the experiment, at the beginning of the school year, students took a test that was said to identify “growth spurters”–students who were most likely to thrive academically. Teachers were given the names of these little geniuses and guess what … as predicted, they flourished. But here’s the catch—the growth spurters were not singled out because of superior performance on a test, they were actually chosen at random.

So why did these students excel? No, fairy dust was not sprinkled into their lunch boxes. The key difference was that having high expectations of these students shifted how the teachers behaved towards them. Teachers were warmer and more patient with the growth spurters. They also took more time to teach them the material, listen to their questions, and gave them better feedback. As the researchers observed, the only difference between them and their peers was in the mind of the teachers and this made all the difference. A “You Can” attitude from the teachers promoted an “I Can” attitude in the students. 

Along these lines, students in a recent study were asked to submit an essay on their personal hero. The papers were returned to them with feedback from their teacher and one of two possible notes clipped to the top.

In the standard condition, the note said: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

In the experiment condition, the note said: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

Students who received the latter version chose to revise their papers far more often than those who received the standard one. They also went on to receive better grades. The impact was especially powerful among minority students—64% of Black students revised their essays, compared to only 27% of Black students in the standard condition. Knowing that their teachers believed in them motivated them to work harder. Positive expectations of others unlocks potential. On the flipside, negative expectations undermine potential. If a teacher expects Johnny to be a “problem child,” it is likely that his behavior will match expectations. Similarly, if a coach or manager is on the lookout for missteps, they will surely find them.

When expectations become reality

This psychological phenomenon of how our beliefs about a person become reality is known as the Pygmalion Effect. The Pygmalion Effect is not just limited to schools. Expectations about individuals become self-fulfilling in offices, on sports fields, in families and in romance. Employees do better when a manager has high expectations. People get better at a sport when the coach believes in their potential. Children thrive when parents recognize their strengths. Relationships do better when partners look for growth and possibility in each other.

The term Pygmalion Effect is a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created that comes to life. George Bernard Shaw appropriated this theme for the play Pygmalion about a professor, Henry Higgins, who transforms a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady. As Eliza observes,

The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.

The play highlights the power of positive expectations. How we treat others can either diminish or elevate them.

When I was an intern in Neurology the head physician at the time, Dr. M, thought the world of me. “Dr. Boardman, what do you think?” he asked whenever there was a question about a diagnosis. “Good work, Dr. Boardman,” he said whenever I reported lab results or presented a new patient. I thrived under his leadership and did my utmost to live up to his high expectations. It motivated me to work harder and to do my best.

Everything changed when Dr. F replaced Dr. M as the attending physician. You see, Dr. F did not think so highly of me. It would be safe to say he thought very little of me and his low expectations became my reality. I started making dumb mistakes. My mind went blank whenever he asked me a question. My confidence evaporated along with my motivation. I started showing up late to rounds and unprepared. The star intern I had become with Dr. M was unrecognizable. Looking back, I recognize this was the Pygmalion Effect in action. The attending doctor’s beliefs about me became self-fulfilling.

If we want people to thrive, it’s essential to communicate our belief in their capacity to do so. Given the benefits of a “You Can” attitude, I worry about the current messaging about mental health that assumes fragility instead of strength. Rather than a “You Can” message, these well intended strategies are sending a “You Can’t” message. Rather than confidence, they communicate doubt in a person’s ability to navigate a challenge or handle discomfort. For instance, people are reflexively referred to therapy for stress of any kind, schools are eliminating tests to reduce anxiety, and trigger warnings are used to help people emotionally prepare for or avoid encountering distressing material. While the goal is to protect mental health, it’s possible that these interventions are undermining it. At the core of these interventions is an underlying assumption that people are ill-equipped to deal with adversity. An extensive meta-analysis including over 24 studies and seven thousand people published in Clinical Psychological Science found that trigger warnings do not prevent distress. If anything, the research suggests that trigger warnings actually heighten anticipatory anxiety. A related study found that trigger warnings counterproductively reinforce survivors’ view of trauma as central to their identity—a belief that has been associated with worse symptoms. Viewing strength as central to identity might be a more therapeutic approach.

Bottom Line

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being,” observed Goethe. The more we doubt people’s resilience, the more we risk undermining it. If we want to cultivate mental health, tools that promote an “I Can” and a “You Can” attitude are a better place to start.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman