What stories do you tell yourself?

Did you know genetics can determine if people find exercise to be difficult or easy? How do you think you might respond if you were told your own genetic disposition towards experiencing exercise as difficult or easy?

Alia Crum, a Psychologist at Stanford’s Mind and Body Lab, ran an experiment to find out how genetic information impacts people and the results show that the stories we tell ourselves have an impact greater than you might expect. Stanford’s Mind and Body Lab explores how people’s mindsets impact their health.

Mindsets are defined as core assumptions about domains or categories that orient us to a particular set of expectations, attributions, and goals. Mindsets, Alia Crum explains, help us to understand our complex world, predict, and take action. It’s important that we understand the impact of mindsets because they “orient and organize the expectations, explanations, or attributions and goals. But they don’t just stay in our head.” Our mindsets affect us in measurable mechanisms by impacting our attention, behaviour, how we feel, how we expect to feel, and our physiology. Mindsets are integrative – the affect of mindsets interacts with the objective characteristics of the thing the mindset is about so that the total affect of a thing is a combination of the thing and our mindset about it.

Crum explains that “the affects of mindset are manifold: changes in attention, changes in affect or emotion, changes in motivation, and mindset confers changes in your physiology.” Importantly, mindsets can be changed by cultural messaging, social interaction and influence and also by conscious choice.

What about that genetic predisposition to the experience of exercise as difficult or easy?

Participants in the Standford Mind and Body Lab performed significantly worse compared to baseline levels established the week before they were informed that they were at risk due to a genetic metabolic efficiency factor. Study participants who were told that they were protected performed better. This same result was observed when study participants were told that they were either at risk or protected due to a genetic ventilation capacity factor. Both experiments found no affect from the participants’ actual genetic risk. Merely informing individuals of a randomly assigned genetic risk led to changes in metabolic gas exchange as well as ventilatory physiology that confirmed the perceived risk independent of their actual risk.

Stanford professor, Alia Crum, explores how our mindsets about food, stress, illness and treatment can influence our bodies and behaviour.

Mindsets matter and Crum’s work shows that mindsets can be changed. In two episodes of the podcast, The Hidden Brain, Crum details her findings. In several experiments, Crum has measured the impact of mindset and also how strategic reframing can help us to achieve a preferred experience. For example, an experiment with hotel housekeepers /room attendants who believed that they did not exercise, experienced improved health (reduction in weight, blood pressure, improved mental health) when they were informed and helped to reframe their physically demanding work as good exercise. The control group did not experience these health benefits (until after the experiment, when they were also informed and assisted in reframing their work as exercise).

Crum’s findings provide the scientific backing for the author of The Story Factor, Annette Simmon’s claim that “story is the DNA of all meaning –nothing is important without the story you tell yourself about it.” Crum is not advocating for positive thinking as a means of changing a person’s health. Mindsets are far more specific, Crum explains, than positive thinking. The core nature of the mindset matters. In reference to mindsets about disease and health, how do you view the illness itself? How do you view the treatment? symptoms? your body and its capabilities? “Our mindsets influence what we pay attention to, what we’re motivated to do, how we feel, and what our bodies are physiologically prepared to do and through those mechanisms, you might influence the benefits of treatment and the impact of an illness on your life.”

In the podcast, The Hidden Brain, Alia Crum shares her research exploring how our perceptions are always filtered through our mindsets — and these mindsets shape our lives in subtle but profound ways.

Notes for Designers:

Our mindsets are powerful forces that could lead us to create stories that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and this will block us from forming understanding and discovering insights that are required to form innovative solutions.

That we have mindsets is a fact of being human. We can’t remove mindsets from our experience, but we can be aware of our mindsets and challenge the stories that we tell ourselves. When we engage in the process with awareness and intent we can form new stories as we gain new information to evolve our understanding.

In a design context, we can understand mindsets as Frames. Kees Dorst’s work on Frame Creation is meant to assist designers in being aware of their existing Frames and forming new Frames in order to solve wicked problems.

Crum, A. (2022, February 10). How Mindsets Influence Health with Alia Crum. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKQwWQxDaM0

Reframing Your Reality: Part 1 | Hidden Brain Media. (2022a, July 18). https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/reframing-your-reality-part-1/

Reframing Your Reality: Part 2 | Hidden Brain Media. (2022b, July 25). https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/reframing-your-reality-part-2/

Simmons, A. (2006). The Story Factor Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling.

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