The Science of Positivity

Sunday May 6, 2018
Ben Bergeron & Christine Bald

An optimistic mindset is a distinguishable characteristic of elite performers because what the human mind focuses on and talks about is what we see more of.

Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky calls this the “frequency illusion,” which is essentially a phenomenon that causes you to see more of the things you are already focused on. This is caused, he says, by two psychological processes.

The first, selective attention, which kicks in when you’re struck by a new word, thing, or idea; after that, you unconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result find it surprisingly more often. The second process, confirmation bias, reassures you that each sighting is further proof of your impression that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence.

Think about the last time you bought a new car. Let’s say it was a Jeep Grand Cherokee. After you buy it, you start noticing them everywhere—it seems that every third person on the road is driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee. And you don’t just notice colors, you notice the different models and add-ons; Laredos are more common than Limiteds, and there are fewer SRTs than there are Overlands. Obviously, there was not a sudden surge in local Jeep sales the day you bought your car. But because you’re actively thinking about it, you can’t help but notice them everywhere.

The same principle applies to your mindset towards sports, work and relationships. If we talk about (or worse, complain about) things that are outside of our control, things that could diminish performance, we will see and experience more of those things.

The opposite is also true. When we stop verbalizing negative thoughts, we see and experience less of them. Over time, this has the effect of making us more positive people—simply by making the conscious choice to exercise more control of what we choose to talk about.

Never whine, never complain, never make excuses.