The scientific truth behind ‘Fake it till you make it’

It really works. You can fake it till you make it. You can fake a smile to become happier. After analyzing 138 studies, researchers have strong evidence to show that smiling can make you happy.

You can fake confidence to increase it and then lower anxiety. But not exactly, not always.

If you wish to fake superiority & show over-confidence, think twice. People interpret expressions of achievement as hubris when the context lacks information on how much authentic effort was put in. So, acting superior and successful when your background story doesn’t check out won’t help and you’ll just come off as arrogant.

Fake it till you make it is a catchphrase; it sounds like an adage. Most catchphrases receive a little extra attention because they are catchy. Not because the content is true or valid. One example is ‘old is gold’ which frequently fails to be accurate. Yet, people use this as a principle.

If you are looking for a way to become happier in life, faking it isn’t the best solution. This is.

Let’s focus on the psychological factors involved in how you can fake it to eventually make it. Let’s give it a real context.


The Hebbian Principle: What fires together wires together

There is this general principle in psychology & neuroscience. What fires together, wires together. It’s called the Hebbian principle. It basically states that if you do something in association with something else, the 2 things will get interlinked. Why does this happen? When humans do anything (read: EVERYTHING), there is always an underlying neural circuitry that fires in some way. This firing is a ‘signal’ the neurons send to other neurons.

When neurons underlying 2 seemingly independent things fire simultaneously or one after the other, they tend to form a pathway that links them to each other. Therefore, this link becomes a type of wire.

The Hebbian principle: What fires together wires together. The brain will automatically associate 2 things if they happen together.

One way to look at it is – correlation becomes causation in a manner of speaking. One set of neurons for event A will send a signal to another set of neurons for event B just because they fired together and wired together. Classical conditioning, the salivating dog, is an example of this.

Another general principle that is observed is that we can fire up neurons just be thinking about something, even if you are thinking about driving a car and do not have a car. So if you have learned how to drive a car, there will be neurons which underlie the processes involved in driving. You can activate these neurons to an extent just by thinking about that.

Now, when you say ‘Fake it till you make it’, what you really are saying is:

Pretend to be in a state or do something so that it fires up some neurons. Do this in the right context so your brain will know that these neurons are paired with something. Take advantage of this pairing based on the Hebbian rule so that those neurons bind together and you can ‘make it’.

Repeated firing of neurons usually makes them efficient & quick.

Fake it till you make it: You are unhappy at school, so smile and act cheerful for a while till the underlying neurons associate cheerfulness with your school.

The Hebbian principle is not the only way in which you can fake it till you make it. Research shows that pretending to act extroverted can increase some aspects of well-being like experiencing flow, connectedness, and positive emotions. That is, being more talkative, social, assertive, outgoing, and spontaneous can increase well-being. This sort of faking is more about arousal and feedback loops than correlated neural circuits. When someone acts extroverted, there is deliberate effort put into seeking social engagement, participating in social activities, speaking boldly, sharing emotions, etc. These aspects increase the number of positive emotions and can help someone fake a personality trait to gain some tangible advantages. This approach has limitations. Acting extroverted can increase positive emotions for most people but for extreme introverts, it can be tiring and even increase negative emotions. And, acting more introverted than usual can reduce positive emotions. People also tend to return to their default state once they are done faking it. This might happen because personality is fairly rigid but not so rigid that it cannot change.

There is a caveat to consider.

A faking/pretending approach cannot ‘override’ something powerful. You can’t fake it till you make it to be happy in school if your teacher abuses you.

You can’t become a millionaire by pretending to be one. It needs hard work and you can’t ‘make it’ till you do the work.

The principles underlying this saying are solid, but the applications are often blown out of proportion.

You can ‘Fake it till you Make it’ for a limited number of things. Be strategic about it.

Let us look at the research and tips now. 


5 research-based highlights and tips on how to fake it till you make it

The psychology of fake it till you make it - research


1. Faking confidence even when it isn’t justified

In a group of studies, researchers found that people’s confidence creates a positive social status even if others think that their confidence is unjustified. What this says is that you can fake your confidence and then use social feedback (others seeing you in a positive light) to gain actual confidence. 

To act confident, address your posture. A stooped posture can activate a negative mood and even slow-down your recovery from an existing negative mood. It would be ideal if you maintain an erect posture while sitting and standing. It is one of the simplest ways to build confidence.


2. Don’t waste money buying expensive products to fake your self-image to make it

People who want to feel confident or successful to create a better self-image often buy products such as designer clothes, shoes, make up, etc. This makes them feel like a high-value individual. However, research shows that this might backfire and they would eventually dwell on their shortcomings and failures. 


3. Take a step backward, learn alternatives and then fake it

Richard E. Watts has developed a technique called Reflecting As If (RAI) which is a strategic fake it till you make it process. He suggests taking a step backward before faking your ideal self and reflecting on how one would behave. This would allow the person to gain new perspectives; alter behaviors in a streamlined fashion to reach their ideal self. So ‘faking it’ here is actually going backward to assess alternatives and then moving forward to reach your desired self to ‘make it.’ This is especially powerful when there are mental health concerns which fuel the need to make it.


4. Talk about your goals and aspirations

Another study looked at how people can keep it real and not really fake (lie) to make it. They found that people who talk about their goals and aspirations received more respect and admirations in their social context than those who talked about their mundane commute or life obligations. A follow-up study showed that just acting more powerful and happy had a positive lasting effect. Those who pretended to be happy and confident were seen as having a higher authority and status within a team. This impression lasted for subsequent meetings as well.  This happens because the person is primed to be more powerful and this priming changes their behavior to reflect that.


5. Use your middle name to fake smartness

One of the easiest ways to fake it is to use your middle name initials. Don’t sign off as Jane Doe, Sign off as Jane D. Doe. For some reason, people perceive others who have the middle name initials in their name as smarter. This might have nothing to do with the Hebbian principle I discussed before. Could just be a quirk of our society.  I will sign off as Aditya S. Shukla. That’s right, I’m smart. Also, an A.S.S….. I work hard too. Albus Dumbledore may be the smartest because he is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore – Albus P. W. B. Dumbledore. 


Now you should have a pretty good idea about the science behind fake it till you make it and how you can use this strategically! Have fun, and make it


P.S. Lies are lies, not a fake it till you make it strategy. FITYMI needs hard work.

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