I recently had this Twitter exchange with Tom Peters:
I refer to that quote from St. Ignatius quite often because I believe it illustrates an important truth about human behavior. We assume that our attitude causes our behavior, and that we act as we do because we think or feel a certain way:
But rather than being a one-way causal relationship, it's really a two-way street. Attitude can certainly inform and shape our behavior, but it's a cyclical process, and behavior can also inform and shape our attitude:
This process is rooted in the dynamics of cognitive dissonance--when our attitude and our behavior are inconsistent, we experience discomfort and even distress, and we modify either our attitude or our behavior to reduce the inconsistency. But as St. Ingnatius and Tom Peters remind us, we don't have to let our original attitude govern our behavior. We can choose to act differently, and this new behavior can in turn modify our attitude. "Perform the acts of faith, and faith will come."
These concepts are deeply embedded in the work of Sonia Lyubomirsky and other "happiness researchers," but psychologists and neuroscientists have long observed them at work in other settings as well. As UC Berkeley neuroscientist Vincent van Veen and his colleagues wrote in 2009:
It has consistently been found that [study] participants [who are behaving in ways that are in conflict with their attitudes] change their attitudes to be more consistent with the counter-attitudinal behavior. Dissonance has been shown to be a negative emotional state accompanied by autonomic arousal; it has been shown that people change their attitudes and restore consonance to specifically reduce the negative affect.
(Researchers like van Veen are beginning to explore the neuroscientific basis for this process. The passage quoted above is from a paper by van Veen et al, "Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance." Here's a direct link to the paper [PDF, 443 KB] And another forthcoming paper from Harvard Business School professor Amy J.C. Cuddy entitled "Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance" apparently explores similar territory, although I've only read the abstract.)
It's noteworthy that choice and free will are essential to the process of altering attitude through behavior. The passage above continues:
Some futher thoughts on authenticity in light of Peters' original advice to "fake a good mood": While intentionally counter-attitudinal behavior may have the desired effect on our attitude, beyond a certain point it may also have negative consequences if others experience us as insincere or manipulative, and it's clearly important to be aware of the line that distinguishes "intentional" from "phony." In addition, there are many good reasons to express our negative feelings and to build safety and trust through candor. I'm not in the least suggesting that we should repress or hide negative feelings reflexively.
When participants in control groups are able to attribute their counter-attitudinal behavior to payment or coercion, or when the counter-attitudinal behavior has no real-world consequences, conflict between behavior and prior attitudes is reduced, and participants experience less cognitive dissonance and do not change their attitudes.
That said, in my experience as a coach, particularly with people who may be experimenting with more intentional behaviors for the first time, we can get hung up on concerns about authenticity and use that as an excuse to justify our choices, no matter how ineffective or unfulfilling they might be. ("I'm just being honest!" we say, or "I have to be myself.") But as the dynamic described above illustrates, authenticity is more complex than is commonly understood.
In Managing Authenticity (from the December 2005 issue of the Harvard Business Review), Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones make the case that authenticity actually requires intentional behavior and, rather than being an innate quality we possess (or lack) on our own, grows out of our relationships with others and our desire to be more effective in those relationships. Goffee and Jones focus on leaders' effectiveness, but their work is relevant to all our relationships and interpersonal interactions:
[W]hile the expression of an authentic self is necessary for great leadership, the concept of authenticity is often misunderstood, not least by leaders themselves. They often assume that authenticity is an innate quality--that a person is either authentic or not. In fact, authenticity is a quality that others must attribute to you. No leader can look into a mirror and say, "I am authentic." A person cannot be authentic on his or her own. Authenticity is largely defined by what other people see in you and, as such, can to a great extent be controlled by you. If authenticity were purely an innate quality, there would be little you could do to manage it and, therefore, little you could do to make yourself more effective as a leader...
Let us be absolutely clear: Authenticity is not the product of pure manipulation. It accurately reflects aspects of the leader’s inner self, so it can't be an act. But great leaders seem to know which personality traits they should reveal to whom and when. They are like chameleons, capable of adapting to the demands of the situations they face and the people they lead, yet they do not lose their identities in the process. [My emphasis]
Viewing our initial attitude as "authentic" and using that to rationalize any subsequent behavior makes no sense when we see how readily our attitude can be modified by choosing different behavior. By the same logic, behavior chosen for the express purpose of modifying our attitude isn't automatically "inauthentic." Looking through Goffee and Jones' framework, we see authenticity as a quality that we cultivate through lived experience and that we (and those around us) sense subjectively, not the result of a behavioral algorithm that disappears when we act intentionally.
I recognize that these complexities can make it difficult to know what's "right" in a given situation (which, of course, is why we have executive coaches.) But my larger point is that we have much more power than we typically realize to choose behavior that will affect our attitude, and that we can be more effective and feel more fulfilled as a result.