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

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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 to a small degree. The main mechanism for this is facial-feedback – our facial muscles influence our emotional state just as our emotional state influences our muscles to create a smile or a frown.

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. Even children consider confident people as credible when their confidence is justified. Not when the confidence is unjustified.

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. You’d only worry about “faking it” if you feel you don’t have what it takes or want to take shortcuts. So let’s first look at the meaning of fake it till you make it.

Fake it means: To pretend, to practice, to condition yourself, to tolerate negative emotions, to act in spite of emotions telling otherwise.

Make it means: The faking became automatic and natural, there was a desired outcome from faking, faking actions led to success, confirmed learning.

This approach does not encourage lying and deceit. It encourages manipulating secondary factors to help you put in the effort and make it.

Another practical version of this is: “learn on the job” and “figure things out on-the-go.” These are ambiguous and often mean one should deliberately learn without preparation. But that’s not what we are looking at. We are looking at effective ways to change the mindset and take indirect actions to help you make it.

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. Click To Tweet

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. Associating 2 things together links them such that when one is present/true, the other one is triggered. As time passes, the association becomes automatic and natural. In psychology, that’s called conditioning.

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 own a car. Mental imagery and the actual reality of perceiving something share common neural circuits but have different firing dynamics. So if you have learned how to drive a car, you can activate the underlying neurons to an extent just by thinking about driving. It works with emotions and mindsets too. This is nothing but imagination and it can be a great tool because imagination is a way to create a new “narrative” for yourself.

If self-critical emotions are holding you back, you can fake it by simply imagining your desired mental state. That will create a new mindset and is associated with the task you want to “make it” in. With this changed attitude, you have the opportunity to learn and progress without emotions holding you back. Positive visualizations are exactly this. They help you to put in the hard work by giving you a favorable mindset. The goal isn’t to act against your emotions, it is to convert your emotions into a desirable mindset and then act by leveraging the changed mindset.

Now, when I say ‘Fake it till you make it’, what I really mean is:

Pretend to be in a state or do something so that it fires up some neurons. Do this in the right context – firing another set of neurons – so your brain will know that these sets of neurons are paired. 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. Many call this “deliberate practice & conditioning.” Repetition automates behavior and automatic behavior feels natural. Something that feels natural is no longer “fake.”

Fake it till you make it: If you are unhappy at work, smile and act cheerful for a while till the underlying neurons associate cheerfulness with your school. Click To Tweet

Changing personality to fake well-being

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.

Impression management at work

A nuanced aspect of faking it is called impression management – managing how you present yourself in a self-serving (beneficial for yourself) way. It’s largely observed in corporate settings where people present themselves and their work in a more desirable way than it is. Manipulation of voice, presentations, smell, gestures, words, choice of content, ease-of-reading reports, etc. convey information at the feeling level (disapproval, disgust, joy, confidence) and this information can be different from objectively presented information like sentences. Some of this may be unconscious and some of this could be deliberate. Either way, these tactics can influence the outcome in a desirable way (that is, “make it”).


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.

You can’t fake an increase in work output through impression management when you haven’t done any work. Some may beg to differ, and this may be perceived as lying.

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. Click To Tweet

Let us look at some 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/warranted

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.

Another way to look at this is how confidence transfers from one area to the other. Research suggests that people who spend time on hobbies over and above work experience an increased level of confidence in their work-life – but only when they have committed to their hobby and it is very different from their work. People can replenish their mental resources and increase self-efficacy (belief in abilities) through serious but different hobbies they enjoy. These effects are seen in spite of gender, age, and child-care responsibilities. This may be a valid option for many unconfident people.

One supporting trick is making eye-contact. Bold, occasional eye contact inspires confidence but it also creates anxiety for many. Looks like humans aren’t very good at correctly guessing where a person is looking while conversing face-to-face. If confident eye contact is difficult for you, focus on the forehead or mouth (not creepily) and it’ll look like you are making genuine eye contact. People are biased to believe that others are making eye contact when they actually aren’t.


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 us to gain new perspectives and alter behaviors in a streamlined fashion to reach our ideal selves. 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 that fuel the need to make it. Here are the steps for RAI:

  1. Step back from your situation
  2. Reflect on how you are
  3. Choose an alternate version of how you want to be
  4. Act as if you are what you have chosen to be


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 admiration 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. People perceive others who have the middle name initials in their name as smarter. This might have something to do with the Hebbian principle I discussed before – an association of being formal/official and intelligence. People may positively evaluate those who use their middle-name initials because middle names are often used in intellectual acknowledgments. This effect emerges from ascribing higher status to those who use their middle name. I will sign off as Aditya S. Shukla. That’s right, I’m smart. Also, an A.S.S. Albus Dumbledore may be the smartest because he is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore – Albus P. W. B. Dumbledore. 

If you are worried about feeling like an imposter, follow the recommendations made at the end of this article.


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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