The Power of Belief

Futures Rambling # 76

The debate over immigration continues to rage: on this side of the globe Abbot is turning back boats and on the other Obama is encouraging cooperation, hoping The House of Representatives will pass immigration reform this year – good luck! Being an immigrant myself, I feel deep empathy for those who board leaky boats in hope of a better life. My family boarded a United Airlines 767, perhaps equally dismal, and we were immigrating for the salubrious reason of a new job; never the less it was still a stressful ordeal many are not prepared to embrace.

The topic of immigration surfaced at an Australia Day barbeque with friends. My pal Bob is considering a move to Ecuador and the rest of us felt compelled to debate his logic and the likelihood of his success in a new country. He concocted the idea to move following a meeting with his financial planner who informed him he had saved more than enough for a comfortable retirement, but when Bob said he planned to live to 120, the planner revised his thumbs up status to thumbs down and recommended a ‘retirement haven’. Bob’s uncle is 100 and his father is 99, so it’s not the outlandish stretch you might imagine.

What was interesting was how opinions divided neatly amongst friends: some felt it was a great idea and had great confidence Bob would adapt beautifully, while others were negative, wary of the enormous risk and possible pitfalls. While it was hardly an astounding epiphany, the afternoon clearly demonstrated some people have what researchers call a ‘fixed (or entity) theory’ and others have a ‘malleable (or incremental) theory’ that allows them to be more open to learning, willing to confront changes and difficult tasks and bounce back from failures.

As influential as whether our theories are fixed or malleable is a person’s beliefs. Beliefs reflect how we feel about important issues, impact our goals, dictate how we construe experiences and influence the habitual patterns and responses we apply to our experiences. They not only define us, but are the foundations of our personalities.

Understanding how beliefs influence decision making is by no means a simple science. However an amusing interpretation can be found in the (Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) MMORPG, Haven & Hearth. The game aims “to provide players an interactive, affectable and mutable game world, which can be permanently and fundamentally changed and affected through actions undertaken by the player.” Six dualisms: tradition and change, martial and peaceful, nature and industry, barbarism and civilization, night and day, and life and death are dealt with throughout the game, but players can affect the outcome by changing their attitude.

Sadly, real life is not like an on line game; don’t tell this to my son and his flatmates who play MMORPG frequently in their lounge room they have labelled ‘the nerdatorium’. In real life changing attitudes, beliefs, or personality, is far more complex – just look at the struggle of politicians who try to reinvent themselves. Hard as he tried K.Rudd couldn’t help being K.Rudd. The good news is that research suggests our personality is flexible and dynamic, and while is not easy to alter our beliefs, understanding them gives us an idea of where to begin.

Stanford University has studied beliefs; of particular interest to Bob and organisations that struggle with integrating new people into a team, some from different cultures, and ensure they function effectively, is the research done into acceptance. They learned belief plays a critical role in whether or not people believe they are accepted and suggest it is a better judge in how we function than the attributes we typically use to define personality e.g. our temperament, the consistent patterns we follow and how we perceive ourselves, others and our environment.

Beliefs, they maintain, are a better gauge of our ability to function well, grow, learn and achieve in school and careers. Going back to Bob, whether he successfully resettles in Ecuador will be more a factor of his belief in his ability, than his history of moving, or whether he has an outgoing temperament.

This leads to the question, if believing is so critical to success, what can we do to make people believe? Don’t yawn, or laugh when you hear this, but some research suggest it all has to do with innovation. There’s that word again, it’s the Holy Grail and it also makes julienne fries! Joking aside, it makes sense; companies or individuals that are more innovative are open to new ideas, processes and people. They’re malleable and that leads to better performance in the face of challenges such as moving to Ecuador.

At Stanford University there has been some interesting investigation into the link between people’s beliefs, and the levels of innovation present in the companies they work for. They use the term ‘innovation self-efficacy’ in reference to motivation borne of beliefs in one’s ability. If we don’t believe, we will not act; if we don’t try, we don’t innovate. The two are mutually reinforcing, if we act and receive positive feedback, it builds our belief, leading to more innovation and acceptance.

The psychologist Albert Bandura proposes innovation self – efficacy develops in three ways: Social persuasion – we are told we can, Vicarious learning – watching others and Mastery experiences – doing it. Designers from Stanford’s d school and Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute have identified ways our environments foster innovation self –efficacy. These do not address the physical environment, that never the less offer food for thought.

  1. Structure learning for small wins and small failures to take advantage of sustained effort, rather than focusing only on the end goal.
  2. Reframe failed attempts as learning opportunities.
  3. Reframe uncertainty as curiosity, rather than not knowing.
  4. Scope projects for ongoing authentic feedback rather than evaluation.
  5. Broadcast success immediately.
  6. Articulate a routine process for innovation.

Companies that train employees to apply knowledge to solve problems that have known answers foster a fear of complexity and failure, because reward and praise comes from getting things right. Rather than building self-esteem, the result is challenge avoidance and vulnerability, the situations produce what is referred to as ‘Innovation Distrust’ or a disbelief in our ability to create innovative solutions. Innovation distrust’ and routine actions are mutually reinforcing.

So if we follow the same pattern day in and day out and always follow the rules, we build an aversion to innovation. Taking this a step further, one could argue we become less malleable by following the status quo, which is no doubt where the phrases ‘being set in one’s way’ or ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ come from.

Adding to the complexity is the concept of relationship beliefs. Fifty years ago researchers used the ‘strange situation’ paradigm to test relationships between infants and their mothers. In these studies mothers and infants were separated and later reunited. This tested whether the infant used the mother as a secure base in times of stress. Infants were labelled securely or insecurely attached. This test can be done with architects and bottles of scotch as well – just messing with you.

Securely or insecurely attached infants have different expectations about whether their caretaker will respond to their needs. The way this theory applies to adults, is that people who expect a negative response (insecurely attached) have fragile relationships and see rejection in ordinary behaviour, they also respond to conflict in ways that undermine relationships.

Again there is good news. Even though researchers learned expectations predict how people will function, they learned they are also malleable and changing people’s expectation of acceptance is key to their ability to succeed in a new environment. None of this is necessary in Bob’s case, he believes he can easily move to Ecuador, make friends and learn Spanish and therefore he will.

Just think if every employee in every Australian company had such belief in their abilities and the companies they worked for nurtured and supported their actions. It might not stop the endless debate on immigration, but it could put an end to the drivel about productivity and innovation in Australian workplaces.


Bleby, Michael; We Came by Boat: How Refugees Changed Australian Business; BRW, August 29, 2013

Gerber, Liz; Innovation Self-Efficacy: Fostering Beliefs in Our Ability Through and By Design; core jr post, October 24, 2011

Dweck, Carol S; Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change; Association for Psychological Science, Stanford University

Dweck, Carol; Mindset: The New Psychology of Success


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