We often assume that we see ourselves and the world around us accurately. But psychologist Alia Crum says that our perceptions are always filtered through our mindsets — and these mindsets shape our lives in subtle but profound ways. In the first of two episodes, Alia explains how mindsets affect our response to stress.
Stress, Mindsets, and Success in Navy SEALs Special Warfare Training, by Eric N. Smith, Michael D. Young, and Alia J. Crum, Frontiers in Psychology, 2020.
Changing Patient Mindsets About Non-Life-Threatening Symptoms During Oral Immunotherapy: A Randomized Clinical Trial, by Lauren C. Howe et al., The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, 2019.
Increasing Vegetable Intake by Emphasizing Tasty and Enjoyable Attributes: A Randomized Controlled Multisite Intervention for Taste-Focused Labeling, by Bradley P. Turnwald et al., Psychological Science, 2019.
Learning One’s Genetic Risk Changes Physiology Independent of Actual Genetic Risk, by Bradley P. Turnwald et al., Nature Human Behaviour, 2018.
Beliefs About Stress Attenuate the Relation Among Adverse Life Events, Perceived Distress, and Self-Control, by Daeun Park et al., Child Development, 2018.
Reading Between the Menu Lines: Are Restaurants’ Descriptions of “Healthy” Foods Unappealing?, by Bradley P. Turnwald, Dan Jurafsky, Alana Conner, and Alia J. Crum, Health Psychology, 2017.
Perceived Physical Activity and Mortality: Evidence From Three Nationally Representative U.S. Samples, by Octavia H. Zahrt and Alia J. Crum, Health Psychology, 2017.
Adaptive Appraisals of Anxiety Moderate the Association Between Cortisol Reactivity and Performance in Salary Negotiations, by Modupe Akinola et al., PLOS One, 2016.
Evaluating a Mindset Training Program to Unleash the Enhancing Nature of Stress, by Alia Crum, Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings, 2011.
Mind Over Milkshakes: Mindsets, Not Just Nutrients, Determine Ghrelin Response, by Alia J. Crum, William R. Corbin, Kelly D. Brownell, and Peter Salovey, Health Psychology, 2011.
Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect, by Alia J. Crum and Ellen J. Langer, Psychological Science, 2007.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the annals of TV comedy, there have been many figures with a dour, cynical outlook, but there's one that stands out for her relentlessly pessimistic mindset.Rachel Dratch:Hi, I'm Debbie.Shankar Vedantam:Rachel Dratch's unforgettable character from Saturday Night Live.Speaker 3:(singing)Speaker 9:You guys, I love weddings.Speaker 4:This is one of the best ever.Rachel Dratch:Wish them luck. The only thing higher than gas prices in this country are divorce rates.Shankar Vedantam:Debbie Downer shows up at parties, weddings and holiday gatherings, always ready to remind people that life is terrible.Speaker 10:All right, who wants cake?Speaker 11:I want some, I want some.Speaker 10:All right, you get some cake. Okay.Rachel Dratch:None for me. With all the refined sugars we're eating, America's experiencing a virtual epidemic of juvenile diabetes.Shankar Vedantam:We all know Debbie Downers in real life. People who can't help but accentuate the negative, who focus on the faults and flaws of others, who always, always see the glass as half empty.Rachel Dratch:A lot of people, that's the one people come up to me and they're like, "Oh, my gosh, that is my sister. That's my mother." Everyone has this Debbie Downer in her life so I think that's why it hit so hard, but.Shankar Vedantam:This week on Hidden Brain, the surprising psychology of mindsets, why they matter and how to master them.Alia Crum:What we can do with our minds, what we can do with our intention and our energy is incredible and it's a power that we often fail to realize is even there.Shankar Vedantam:A quick note that we are doing something a little unusual today. This episode is part one of our story. There's going to be a second part. We'll feature that story in our next episode. It's best to listen to these episodes in order. When most of us think about our problems and challenges, we locate them in barriers and conflicts we experience in the outside world. Your job application gets turned down, your partner breaks up with you, you fall sick and find it hard to get out of bed. At Stanford University, psychologist Alia Crum has spent a long time thinking about how we perceive the obstacles we confront and how we respond to them. Alia Crum, welcome to Hidden Brain.Alia Crum:Thank you. It's great to be here.Shankar Vedantam:Alia, I understand that you were a very serious amateur athlete as a child and as a young person. From age 4 to 14, you were a competitive gymnast. In college, you played division one ice hockey. You later became an internationally ranked triathlete. I want to take you back to your time in college when you were contending with the exertions of your sport. Can you give me a sense of your hockey training regimen?Alia Crum:Yeah. Being a division one athlete is no joke. It's a full-time job in the midst of already a full-time job of going to college. We trained five days a week. We had two games on the weekend. Practices were two hours followed by strength training after that. It was quite a grind.Shankar Vedantam:And did you feel, as a result of doing all this exercise, that you were doing all that you could do to get in shape?Alia Crum:Not at all. Well, the interesting thing is we'd have a two hour practice, then go to the gym, and then just because I didn't feel like it was quite enough, I would get on the treadmill or the elliptical and get a little extra cardio.Shankar Vedantam:One day as she was taking a run along the Charles River, a set of intrusive thoughts entered her mind. She was letting people down. She was letting herself down.Alia Crum:And all my teammates can attest to this. They're like, well, there was a few of us who had this sort of feeling of scarcity. Like we just weren't doing quite enough and we needed to do more. And it was just this persistent feeling of, "This is not enough. I'm not doing enough." And I remember, I'll never forget it running on the Charles that day when I had this moment of feeling like, "Is it ever enough? Will I ever do enough?"Shankar Vedantam:And what about when it came to diet? Part of what you have to do when you're an athlete, of course, is all the physical conditioning, but presumably you were also paying a great deal of attention to what and how much you ate.Alia Crum:Yeah. Diet is a huge deal for athletes and it's tricky and different sports have different issues. As an ice hockey player, you want to gain muscle, but still stay lean so that you're fast and quick on the ice. These are in some ways competing demands. Same with the exercise. Just constantly feeling like I wasn't eating right. I was eating too much or eating not the right foods. I was too heavy or not strong enough or, mostly for me, I'm a naturally muscular person, but I always had this feeling like I was gaining weight that I shouldn't have. So there was this constant conflict, constant tension feeling like I should be eating less.Shankar Vedantam:Alia was surrounded by smart, driven people. I asked her if the voices of criticism she constantly heard were coming from the outside or the inside.Alia Crum:This was all self-generated. I kind of had this uncertainty or feeling like I wanted to be in the best shape possible, but really not feeling like I was ever there. Every day was a struggle.Shankar Vedantam:And did you worry about what others were thinking about you? Your advisors, your coaches, your fellow players?Alia Crum:Oh, constantly. As an athlete, you're worried that the professors don't think you're as smart and as an athlete, you worry that are you going to live up to playing at the same level as the other teammates that you have? I played with a number of Olympians and there was a constant feeling of inadequacy compared to them.Shankar Vedantam:Alia was interested in psychology, but didn't have a good way of understanding her own feeling of scarcity, that nothing she did felt like enough. A few years later, now in graduate school, Alia was driving herself as hard as ever. She wasn't just stressed. The fact that she was stressed had itself become a form of stress. She asked herself, "What does it mean that I find this so hard?"Alia Crum:It was grad school for me when the real kind of self doubt started seeping in as an academic. I think, as an undergrad at Harvard, I was mostly just excited to be there, to learn and to grow and to take interesting classes. And I was fortunate enough to get into Yale as a PhD student. And that's when I really started to get stressed.I wanted to have a successful dissertation. I wanted to do research that made a difference. And I wasn't sure if I was doing that. I wasn't sure if I was learning the right things, if I had the right ideas, if I was working hard enough, if I knew enough statistics, if I was reading the right papers. There was sort of this constant feeling of self doubt. And that carried with it a lot of stress, a lot of feeling like I was in this constant state of threat or challenge and wanting to succeed, caring about it so much, but not really feeling like I was in flow, if you will. I wasn't in that state of just feeling confident in myself.Shankar Vedantam:But then one night as she was working late, the world presented Alia with a little gift, a brief moment of insight.Alia Crum:And I'll never forget it. This was about my third year in graduate school. And I had my meetings with my advisor, Peter Salovey, at 8:00 AM on Friday mornings. And 8:00 AM is still early when you're a grad student, but I always remember sort of frantically Thursdays trying to finish the things that I said I was going to do, come to him with a new idea or a new breakthrough or some new analyses.And this one particular night I was working on coming up with the idea that I was going to pursue for my dissertation. So there was a lot of stress about that. Do I have a worthy idea? And I was in the lab late at night. Now they put the grad students at Yale, at least at that time, in the basement of the psychology department. That's where they kept the computers with the statistical software. And I was in there late at night, stressed, anxious, feeling self doubt, frantically trying to run some analyses, come up with some ideas, coming up with something that I could present to my advisor the next morning.Shankar Vedantam:Outside the closed doors of the lab, Alia heard footsteps.Alia Crum:Yeah, it was late at night, so I didn't think anyone would really be there, but I heard footsteps coming down the door. And you can hear anything in that basement because it's concrete and even the slightest move, you feel a crack or a creak. And I perk up. I'm like, "Who's here? Who am I going to have to talk to? I don't have any time to talk. I'm busy."And the door creaked open and in looked Bret Logan. Now, Bret was the IT person at Yale. Still is. He's a great guy. And we were friends, but I didn't have any time to talk to Bret at this particular point in time. So I looked up at him kind of with this frazzled stress state. And he must have picked up on it because all he said in response to me was, "It's just a cold, dark night on the side of Everest." And then shut the door.Shankar Vedantam:A cold, dark night on the side of Everest. What do you think he was trying to say, Alia?Alia Crum:At the time, I didn't think twice about it. I was just like, "Okay, Bret." And went back to my stressing and struggling. But it occurred to me about two weeks later. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking and realizing what he meant.So if you were climbing Everest, you could imagine that there'd be some nights that were cold, that were dark. Perhaps you'd be tired or strained. But what did you expect? Did you really expect that climbing Everest would be a walk in the park? Would climbing Everest be such a great feat if it was just a walk in the park? No.So what did I expect? Did I expect that getting a PhD, making a contribution to the field of psychology was going to be easy? No. Would it be that great of a feat if it were just a walk in the park? No. So I think what Bret meant there or what it meant to me was it really gave me a profound shift in perspective, a profound shift in mindset, going from this place of "This stress and struggle is a sign that I'm not worthy, that something's wrong" to "Oh, this stress, this struggle, this cold dark night, this is part of the process. This is it. This is what makes you great, what makes you succeed."Shankar Vedantam:So in some ways, what you were hearing was that, yes, it's difficult, but it's difficult for a reason. And once you focus on the reason, that in some ways it puts the difficulty into some perspective.Alia Crum:A hundred percent. We get messages from everywhere. From public health, from culture, from books telling us that stress is a bad thing, that it's going to make us sick, it's going to hurt our productivity and therefore we should avoid it or kind of counteract it. But if you think about the times in your life that you grew the most as a person or you performed as an exceptionally high level as an athlete or as a professional or as an individual and you look back to those times and you ask yourself, "Did those times involve any stress?" The answer, invariably, is yes.Part and parcel of the things that matter to us is stress. Stress is defined as the experience or anticipation of adversity in one's goal-related efforts. That last part is critical. Those goal-related efforts. What that means is we don't get stressed about things we don't care about. So if I told you that Johnny was failing school or Johnny wasn't going to pass his PhD qualification exams, that wouldn't stress you out unless you were Johnny or you cared about Johnny or you cared about the Johnny's of the world passing school, right? So you start to realize that stress and our values, our cares, our goals are two sides of the same coin. You start to get a new approach, a new mindset about the nature of stress.Shankar Vedantam:What's interesting, of course, is that when you had this insight about the comment and what the comment might mean, a cold dark night on the side of Everest, it didn't change your circumstances. You were still in grad school. You were still trying to find a dissertation topic. You were still juggling all the things that you were juggling, and yet it did make a difference.Alia Crum:It made a profound difference. It was game changing and you're exactly right. Nothing else changed. It's not like I had a eureka moment in some analyses or that I just advanced a year in my PhD. I was the same person in the same circumstance doing the same thing with the same meetings and tasks ahead of me. The only thing that changed was my mindset, was my view of stress, of struggle in this process of getting a PhD.Shankar Vedantam:Philosophers, novelists and spiritual counselors have wrestled with a question for centuries. The problems we face in our lives are obviously shaped by our experiences in the world, but our perceptions of those problems are also our perceptions. They're shaped by what happens inside our own minds. When we come back, what modern psychological science is finding about the role that our own minds play in our construction of problems and their solutions. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. How much do our minds shape the way we experience the world and how much does the way we think shape our ability to respond to challenges and setbacks? Alia Crum is a psychologist at Stanford University. She studies how we interpret and respond to everyday challenges. Her research suggests that, while we naturally focus on what appear to be the objective facts of our day to day dilemmas and setbacks, these challenges are often shaped in consequential ways by our own minds.Alia, I want to take you back one more time to a defining moment in your athletic career. We're now going back even earlier into your childhood. You were 10 years old and getting ready for an important gymnastics meet that was going to happen in three days. Can you tell me what your preparations involved and what happened at the gym?Alia Crum:Yeah, so I was a very serious gymnast growing up. We trained four hours a day, four days a week with meets on the weekend. And I loved it. I was all in in gymnastics. I cared about it so much. We had a great group of us doing it. I would come home and get on the beam to do more practices. I just loved it and wanted to excel at the highest level.And I had a chance to do this. I had a chance to compete in the regionals, to have a shot at making it to nationals. And I was in the gym training before the meet and I did a vault and on the vault, I hit my ankles together so hard, landed wrong, and I was limping and I was hurt. And I thought, "Okay, it must not have been that big of a deal. I'm probably fine." I tried to walk around. I tried to walk it off, but I couldn't walk it off. I had to stop, ice. And the pain was shocking. It was both physical and also emotional because I had this immediate sinking feeling of, "I'm not going to be able to compete".Shankar Vedantam:How bad was it? It sounds like you hit your ankles together, so the bony part of the foot. That must have been quite painful.Alia Crum:Yeah. That little bone in the middle of your ankle that sticks out, those two things hit together. I had to stop that day. I went home. I was distraught. But I was determined. So I had that moment of, "Oh, God, what happened?" And then the next feeling was, "I must do this. I must compete." So we did everything we could to get it ready. I was icing and wrapping it and elevating it and took care of it as much as I could the next few days.Shankar Vedantam:Alia's father told her that healing had to do with her mind, not just her body.Alia Crum:My father was a martial artist. He was a master of the art of Aikido and had done a lot of visualization and energy work. And so I worked with him on my mind at the time. I worked with sending energy to my ankle and I worked with visualizing my routine. I knew I couldn't train physically, but I could train in my mind and the wonderful thing about gymnastics is your routines are preset, so you know exactly what you're going to do and what you should do. And that makes it very easy to visualize. So I spent those few days just visualizing my routine, doing nothing physically, but doing everything mentally.Shankar Vedantam:Did you get to the regional competition that weekend?Alia Crum:I did. We went there and not only did I get there, I competed on that foot and I qualified for the national championship.Shankar Vedantam:Wow. So a couple of days later, Alia, you received some news about your ankle. Tell me the news that you received.Alia Crum:A few days later, it was still bothering me. The visualization had helped my performance, but it didn't heal the pain completely. I felt no pain during my performances on floor, vault, beam and bars, but after it wasn't like the ankle magically was better. So we went to the hospital and got an x-ray and I found out that the ankle was very clearly broken.Shankar Vedantam:You had competed on a broken ankle and you qualified?Alia Crum:That's correct.Shankar Vedantam:I mean, that almost seems impossible.Alia Crum:It does, right? We think that the world is physical. We think that our bodies are physical and solely physical and if you have a broken ankle, that should be career-ending or at least competition ending. And what I learned then very clearly was that the physical is only a portion. It's a very real portion and it shouldn't be totally overridden or discarded, but it still is only a portion. And what we can do with our minds, what we can do with our intention and our energy is incredible. And it's a power that we often fail to realize is even there and certainly are not fully tapping into it in the ways that I think we can and the ways that I was able to do that day.Shankar Vedantam:After you became a psychologist, you became a researcher into the psychology of mindsets and you've used that term a couple of times in our conversation already. Can you explain to us what mindsets are?Alia Crum:Yeah. We view mindsets as core assumptions that we make about the nature of ourselves or things in the world. They're beliefs, really. They're a type of belief, but it's a very powerful type of belief, right? So we have mindsets about our own abilities or our intelligence, but we also have mindsets about other things. Mindsets about the nature of stress, mindsets about the capabilities or limitations of our own bodies, mindsets about the enoughness of the foods that we're eating or the exercise we're doing. They're perspectives, they're lenses or frameworks, they're just assumptions about the meaning or the nature of those things.Shankar Vedantam:So one of the things that you discovered as you started engaging in this research is that it's not just the case that many of us don't understand the power of mindsets. Many of us don't even realize that we have mindsets.Alia Crum:I think that is perhaps the most profound realization of all, right? It's exciting and we can talk about all the ramifications of mindsets, how they change our attention, our affect, our physiology and our behavior. But to go back a step before that is to realize that we have mindsets. So often we think that our beliefs, our experiences are a direct reflection of the world as it objectively is. And what you come to realize is that is just not the case. Our perceptions, our beliefs, our experiences are always an interpretation. They're always filtered through the lenses, the mindsets, that we have.Shankar Vedantam:I'd like to talk about some of the research and the ways in which mindsets seem to influence us. One of the things they seem to do is they seem to shape our expectations, our predictions about what will happen. And to some extent, I think that's true of what happened with you on that gymnastics floor that day at the regionals competition. Your expectations, your predictions about what you were going to do ended up shaping what you actually did. Can you talk about this idea that one powerful effect that mindsets have is that they shape our expectations of the world.Alia Crum:Yeah. So you can imagine if I had gone to the doctors that day and they said, "Your ankle is broken. You can't compete," right, that would be one mindset. That feeling of this ankle is broken, you will not be able to compete. You will feel pain, you will be not functioning, right? That's the expectation. I was somehow able to shift into a mindset or a belief that I was okay, that I could still perform in the midst of this issue, whatever it was, going on in my foot. And that led to the expectation that I was going to be just fine, that I was going to get up there and perform to my highest ability.Shankar Vedantam:Can you explain this idea that's increasingly common among neuroscientists and cognitive scientists that the brain operates as a sort of prediction machine? What's that mean, Alia?Alia Crum:Yeah. The whole goal of the brain is to try to figure out what's going to happen next so that it can prepare and prioritize what the body's doing now in preparation for that moment. So again, we're not just responding in a passive or reactive way. We're proactively thinking about, "Okay, are you going to be able to do this? How is this milkshake or meal going to make you feel? Are you getting enough exercise?"The brain is calculating and making estimates on those predictions. And that's sending signals back to the body to say, "Oh, well, if I'm not getting enough food, I need to maybe slow my metabolism down, maybe boost up the hunger signals so I seek out food." If it's, "Oh, I think I'm hurt, I need to send inflammation signals throughout my body. I need to send pain signals throughout the body so I sit and I avoid activity." So our brain is constantly trying to predict what's going to happen so that it can regulate our bodies and prepare it for what it thinks is going to occur.Shankar Vedantam:And, of course, that's going to shape what the brain pays attention to. If you think, "I'm definitely going to compete in the regionals and here's what I need to do", your attention is going to be, "How do I execute my gymnastic routine properly?" as opposed to "How much pain is my ankle experiencing"?Alia Crum:Right. So the sheer mechanism of prediction processing is very logical. It seems very sound and it seems very objective. It's like, "Okay, if I think this is going to happen, I'll regulate my body." But the assumption that you made from the beginning was in some ways subjective, right? I objectively had a broken ankle, but there was a variety of ways to interpret that. Right?And so that's important. And then you start to also see this cascade of effects. So because our brains can't process everything at one time, it goes on these simplifying systems. So it has heuristics. It makes assumptions. So if it thinks, "Okay, you are going to be able to perform," then your attention systems start noticing the ways in which you are going to be able to perform. So my attention shifted to, "Oh, I feel pretty good, right? Oh, I can actually walk on this foot." Right? You start noticing the things that confirm the prediction that you had in the first place. It's called confirmation bias, and it tends to create this self-fulfilling loop because then you're getting data that feeds back to that belief or prediction.Shankar Vedantam:So in some ways I think what you're saying is that there might be an objective reality out in the world, but as it comes through our minds, we have different choices in some ways of how we process that objective reality. So we can perceive the ankle as broken, we can perceive the ankle as not broken. And perhaps the better question to ask is not so much which version of our mindset best reflects reality as much as to ask which version of our mindset is going to help us most in the long run.Alia Crum:That's exactly right. And you realize, if you think about it and you actually go one step further, it was amazing that I could do that. Should I have continued doing that? Should I have continued believing that I was fine? That might have led to some long term consequences. And so it's not that one mindset is right or wrong, true or false, right. It really is inherently subjective.But the key is that the mindsets that you have have an effect. They influence what you expect. They influence what you pay attention to. They influence our physiology and they influence what we actually do. And, therefore, they create the reality that's implied. Now that process could be useful or not useful. It could be adaptive or it could be maladaptive depending on the situation and the circumstance that you're in.Shankar Vedantam:It may be helpful to think of mindsets as a frame that we put around reality. Different frames highlight different aspects of the picture. If Alia had taken an x-ray before the competition, it may have prompted her to think of her ankle injury differently. The broken ankle may have brought to mind all the ways in which she was in pain or had limited motion. Instead, the frame she did put around her injury caused her to focus on what she could do rather than on what she couldn't.It's important to underline that Alia is not saying that her frame was the right one. Ignoring a broken ankle could have led to long term damage. Her point isn't that what she did in the competition was correct. It's a much larger psychological point. What we call reality is usually a mix of what is objectively happening in the world and how we think about it.When we come back, the surprising power of changing the frame. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. It's called hell week. It's one of the most physically demanding selection programs in the world. It's what you have to go through if you are going to become a U.S. Navy SEAL.Speaker 12:(chanting)Shankar Vedantam:It's an endless stream of pushups, pullups, people screaming at you. Psychologist Alia Crum decided that this was the perfect setting to better understand the science of mindsets.Alia Crum:We wanted to look at perhaps one of the most highly performing groups of people in the world, and that is U.S. Navy SEALs. So these are people who go into the Navy to become the best of the best. And they're put through a grueling training, right, in order to become a SEAL.So the first phase of the underwater demolition SEALs training, or BUDS, candidates undergo seven weeks of intense physical and mental training. And a lot of people are familiar with the most grueling part of this training, which is known as hell week. And this is when candidates complete tasks and drills almost nonstop, not sleeping, for five and a half days of training. So what we were interested in is looking at how these candidates' mindsets might influence whether or not they make it through that demolition training. And we had been studying stress mindset.Early on, we had developed a measure to characterize people's mindset about stress. Essentially, do you believe that stress is debilitating, that it's going to harm your performance and productivity and wellbeing? Or do you believe that stress can be enhancing, can improve your performance and boost your health and wellbeing? And we show that this mindset rests on a continuum and what was interesting with these SEALs, so we measured them. These were all candidates. They hadn't gone through training yet.First of all, what we found was that these candidates had a stress-is-enhancing mindset. On average, they were over the midpoint of the scale. And that was the only group that we had ever measured that had that. Every other sample or population that we had looked at, employees in large finance firms or tech firms or undergraduates in America, at least all tended to have the mindset that stress was debilitating. And these were a different type of people. These were a different beast, right? And it makes sense. These were people who chose to go into Navy SEAL training, right? They must have some sort of inclination.Speaker 6:I just think that, if you're going to quit on this little obstacle, how are you going to do on other obstacles in life?Alia Crum:But what we found in this study, and this was a study I did with a former grad student Eric Smith, we found that their mindsets at the beginning predicted whether or not they would make it through. So it's notoriously hard. Seven to 20% of candidates who start the training complete it. Only seven to 20% complete it. And what we found was that this one measure, this measure of their mindsets about stress, predicted whether or not they would succeed. So those who had an even more stress-is-enhancing mindset were more likely to succeed. They also showed better objective performance measures on things like the obstacle course test and also higher ratings from their peers.Shankar Vedantam:I feel like this is connected with some of the work you've done looking at students in high school and finding the same connection that people who think that stress is debilitating sometimes do worse than people who have a more positive attitude about stress.Alia Crum:Yeah. What we see typically in students and adolescents is that the experience of stress leads to a loss of self-control. So it makes people feel like they're not in control and that kind of spirals down and has all sort of negative effects on people's lives. And what we've found is that stress mindset severs this link. So adolescents who believe that stress can be enhancing actually don't have that negative impact on self-control. And, if anything, it might go the opposite direction. So you experience stress and you think, "Okay, this is a cold dark night. This is part of what it's like to grow up. I can engage more. I can become empowered. I can work through this. I can be resilient." So that's what we've seen there.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that you've even tested the effect of explicitly teaching people that stress can enhance performance. What was the outcome of this instruction for people who were negotiating for a salary increase?Alia Crum:Yeah. In that study, it was actually appraisals of arousal so they were experiencing arousal or kind of nervous energy before the salary negotiation. And what we did was give them a simple message that said, "Hey, this experience of nervousness, of nervous arousal before a negotiation, is actually a good sign that can help you perform well." And that simple message led to improved outcomes on the negotiation. This is taken also from work by Jeremy Jamieson and Wendy Mendes and others who have looked at this appraisal of arousal manipulation.Shankar Vedantam:And you've looked at other kinds of workplaces as well, right, where you look at what's the effect of teaching people that stress can be enhancing the effects of this mindset on their performance.Alia Crum:Yeah, we've created very seemingly simple videos, films that showcase anecdotes and research and examples, all true, presenting this case. That stress can have enhancing effects on our lives and our wellbeing. And what we've shown is just watching these short videos, they're three minutes, in some cases, not only leads to a change in mindset about stress, but confers benefits in terms of greater work performance, fewer negative health symptoms and other positive outcomes.Shankar Vedantam:Contrast this research with the way we usually talk about stress. For decades now, we have been talking about stress as a poison to be avoided. In workplaces, busy people walk around saying, "I'm so stressed. I need a vacation." Few of us stop to ask what effect these worries about stress might have on our wellbeing.Alia Crum:All of these warnings and messages are well intentioned. It makes sense, right? It's like, oh, we find out that stress could have a negative impact. We should tell everybody about that, right? Let's warn them. But when you start to become aware of the role of mindsets, you realize that what we are unintentionally doing in sending those messages out is creating mindsets that might be unhelpful and perhaps even counterproductive in our goals.So when you learn that stress is going to kill you, what does that do when you're stressed? It makes you more stressed. Right? Now, not only do you have to deal with the stress of this pandemic and your daycare closing for the fourth time, but now you have to stress about the stress. And so when you recognize that that mindset matters, you can kind of reverse engineer and think back to, "Well, what would be a useful mindset here? What mindset about stress would be helpful?"Now, if we could easily reduce stressors in our life, it might be the warning, right? But that's just not the case. We do not often have the ability and/or luxury to reduce this amount of stress we're experiencing. And as we've discussed, if you do remove all stress, you also remove all cares, you remove those values, you remove the things that matter to you. Being a parent is stressful. Succeeding in a career is stressful. Being an athlete of any kind is stressful, right? Life is stressful and that's okay. Right? So when we start to realize that, then you say, "What mindset would be useful here?" And that's how we've kind of landed on this mindset that stress can be enhancing along with Bret Logan's sage advice.Shankar Vedantam:I want to take a few beats here and underline some important caveats. It's one thing to say mindsets are powerful. It's smart to pay attention to our mindsets and to ask if they are helping us or hurting us. But it's not smart to believe our mindsets can be the solution to every problem. Surely, I asked Alia, if we need to guard against well-intentioned people who tell us that stress is always bad, we also need to be cautious if people tell us that stress is always good.Alia Crum:Yeah. When we do this research, often the first goal is to just point out that your mindset is playing a role. But what often happens is people take that and then they run with it, right? And then they assume it's sort of all or nothing. Well, if stress is enhancing, we should just lay it on our employees. Right?And that is the last thing that I would want people to take away from this. What I want people to realize is that the total effect of anything is a combined product of what you're actually doing and what you think about what you do. So mindsets influence our lives, but they are just a piece of the puzzle. And it's just a piece of the puzzle that I think we haven't paid enough attention to. And then the other thing I would say that is that don't jump to conclusions about what the right mindset is. What is right, or what is adaptive, depends on the circumstance.So there might be a breaking point in which having a stress-is-enhancing mindset is helpful, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't reduce unnecessary stressors. I think this is really important. The work on mindsets, it's really empowering to the individual. And that's great, but we also want to make sure that people don't feel like it's all up to them to change their realities because you just change your mindset and everything will be fine.Your mindset will help, but the reality matters too. And also you have mindsets because of the reality that we live in. Why do we have the mindset that stress is debilitating? Because we live in a culture where these messages are everywhere, right? Be empowered by this, but also recognize that it's not all you, that there are forces shaping your mindsets so we need to be aware of those, too. And then we need to change systems and structures in our society to hopefully generate better cultural mindsets.Shankar Vedantam:I've often found that it's one thing to have insights about how our minds work and another thing to put those insights into practice in our own lives. And that's true not just for ordinary mortals like me, but even researchers like you who have made the discoveries about these insights. Some time ago, Alia, you were giving an important speech and you were a little nervous. I want to play you a little clip of you yourself talking at the TED conference.Alia Crum:The placebo effect is not about the faux pill or the sugar pill or the fake procedure. What the placebo effect really is is a powerful, robust and consistent demonstration of the ability of our mindsets, in this case, the expectation to heal, to recruit healing properties in the body.Shankar Vedantam:So Alia, I can hear your voice shaking in that clip. And the reason I played it is not to show that you were nervous during the talk, but because during the talk you realized that you were stressed, you realized that you were nervous and you employed some of the techniques and insights that you had learned about mindsets to change what you did the rest of the talk. Tell me what you did.Alia Crum:Yeah. I mean, this was a big talk. This was an opportunity to get out some of the research I had done and share it with the whole world on the internet. And as I started speaking, my nerves were conveyed in, as you show there, the quivering of my voice. And I could notice myself doing that. And it would've been real easy to just say, "Oh, my God, this is a disaster. I need to run off the stage." But what I did mentally was just remind myself that I was here for a reason, that I had an important message to say, and that, of course, I was nervous. This mattered. It mattered to me and I felt like it mattered or could matter to others. And so that feeling of this is worth it, this matters kept me going to the end.Shankar Vedantam:In some ways, I think what I hear you saying is that when you reinterpret stress not as evidence of your inadequacy, but as evidence of how much you care about something, it can transform the way you think about it.Alia Crum:That's exactly right. It was so important. And if I'm being honest, I got off the stage. I knew I got the message out but I was totally distraught because I felt like, "Ugh, I was not at my peak. I did it. I said what I wanted to say, but I was obviously nervous. Everybody's going to know. Nobody's going to watch this."And I was so mad at myself for that. And that anger also came from a place of I cared, I wanted this to be great. And, fortunately, I gave myself some slack and who knows? Who knows what would've happened with that TEDx talk were I had been perfect throughout all. But I do think there's something powerful in people seeing the human behind the work. That was me, right? This is me now. This is the work we've done. This is what we've learned so far. It's been useful, but it's just the beginning. I'm learning. We're all learning. And that's what I'm really looking forward to doing in the next 20, 30, 40 years of my career is just keep learning on an academic level, but also learning and growing on a personal level.Shankar Vedantam:Mindsets can change the way we approach a difficult conversation at work or a physically demanding assignment. Changing your mindset can change the way we think about stress and setbacks. But all of the ideas we have discussed today explore the effects of mindsets on our attitudes, motivation, and perception. They look at how mindsets affect the mind. In part two of our story, we will look at something even stranger. Is it possible that our mindsets don't just change our minds, but that they can change our physical bodies?Alia Crum:What we found was that simply informing them that their work was good exercise led to changes in their health.Shankar Vedantam:Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick.Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Devin Trainer, a manager with our ad sales and distribution partner, Stitcher. Not long ago, we started receiving messages from listeners reporting they were having problems accessing our show on Google Podcasts.Devin sprang into action, working with staff at Google until the problem was fixed. There was lots of troubleshooting over several days, but we knew Devin wouldn't stop working on it until there was a solution. Thank you, Devin. If you like this episode and would like us to produce more shows like this, please consider supporting our work. Go to support.hiddenbrain.org. Again, if you would like to help support the show you love, go to support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.
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