The Life Altering Power of Faking it
No, not that way. We’re talking about faking it at work, at home, among friends and lovers.

October 12, 2012

No, not that way. We’re talking about faking it at work, at home, among friends and lovers.

We’re talking about faking it as the fast lane to a better life. Does that actually work? (And, okay, what about faking it in bed?)

Can you really “fake it till you make it”? It’s a big cliché, to be sure, and big clichés often have a kernel of truth rattling around inside. But I always sort of hoped it was just an empty phrase that was tons of fun to say and nothing more. Because if it were true, well… that would suck. I mean, the world already has plenty of fakers, thank you. Nobody’s doing any hand-wringing over a shortage of insincere flatterers, frenemy colleagues, heavily cologned cars salesmen, liar-liar bosses, corporate spokes prevaricators, bad toupees, Ponzi schemes or fanciful profiles. We don’t need to be encouraging slick, phony behaviour. We need to encourage authenticity. Especially now in the digital age, when it’s easy to pretend you’re cooler, more popular or less married than you actually are.

So it was very upsetting – very upsetting – to find out that, yes, fakery has its uses. Not just uses, but advantages. It can make you happier and healthier; you can be more effective at work and more loved at home. This is based on laboratory experiments; apparently there’s no shortage of experimental psychologists who are also interested in faking it.

And so, much against my will, I present to you the official Men’s Health guide to faking it. Read it and weep along with me. Then we can both start faking more, and succeeding more, because evidently, one follows the other… like water into wine (or at least a convincing red-coloured liquid).

Let’s begin with a smile.

A forced smile, to be exact. Back in the late 1980s, psychologists at the University of Illinois recruited 92 undergrads to take part in an experiment in which the members of one group held felt-tip markers between their teeth while rating cartoons. Those clever researchers were simply forcing the varsity students to smile. And as it turned out, the cartoons were funnier to those students than to others who hadn’t been forced into felt-tip smiles. It seems our facial muscles send signals to our brains telling us we’re happy (which makes you wonder how brainy our brains really are). This is known as the “facial feedback hypothesis.” Researchers have also discovered that what’s true for the face is true for the rest of the body as well. No, your body doesn’t smile, but it does radiate nonverbal messages of confidence or weakness. Two different psychology labs recently conducted experiments involving body postures and came up with the same result: if you “put on” a powerful body posture, you will think and behave with more power. At the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, professor Dr Adam Galinsky, and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which 77 undergrads sat for three to five minutes in either an “expansive” position (taking up maximum space with their bodies; one arm on the back of the neighboring chair and legs crossed widely, one ankle on the other knee) or a “constricted” one (hands under thighs, shoulders dropped, legs together). The students then gave up more when the opponent was angry than when he was happy. (Head fake: there was no human opponent. They were haggling with a software programme. A very angry software program that would say things like, “This is really getting on my nerves” and “This negotiation pisses me off.”) In subsequent experiments, Van Kleef and colleagues discovered that anger has its limits. Anger won’t get you very far if you’re the one with less power in the negotiation. In fact, your anger may backfire; an opponent who holds the advantage may demand more from you if he thinks your anger is inappropriate. Van Kleef’s latest experiments, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2011, suggest that anger on the buyer’s part works because it implies a threat ¬– that the buyer is about to walk away from the negotiating table, for example. So why not just threaten to bolt? Good idea: in fact, that tactic works better than anger. Delivering a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum in a calm, matter-of-fact way shows that you’re confident and in control. Your threat is perceived as more credible. And that “cold” strategy yielded the biggest concessions from the hundreds of students who were brought in to act as sellers. In related research, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania tested the role of emotional transitions in negotiations. They replicated Van Kleef’s setup but had certain “buyers” make a shift in mood – either from happy to angry or angry to happy. The students tended to concede more to a happy-to-angry buyer because they either “caught” the happiness (in a process known as “emotional contagion”) and therefore became more acquiescent, or figured they had done something to spark the shift to anger. But if a buyer displayed only anger, the students tended to dismiss him as a hothead.

As for the buyers who shifted from angry to happy?

The students conceded the same small amounts to them as they did to buyers who displayed only happiness. Bottom line: the next time you buy a car, you don’t have to get mad. Just threaten to walk. Whether you mean it or not. And whatever you do, don’t go to one of those dealers who brag about being so gosh-darn nice, and oh, everyone’s so happy in here! You could succumb to emotional contagion and, despite your best intentions, start acting nice! And even though they won’t budge on price, you’ll refuse to lose your cool and won’t threaten to walk out, so you’ll reach a deal that is way more than what you should have paid. Way to go, Mr Nice Guy. Remember these three words, buried in the conclusion of one of Van Kleef’s scientific papers: “Happiness elicits exploitation.” If you’re happy and you know it, fake a frown. Now that the easy stuff is behind us, let us move on to more uncomfortable terrain. Let’s talk about faking it with our friends. And girlfriends. Let’s suggest that you should be a little more caring than you actually are. What if you could become a close compadre, or the love of her life, simply by saying the right (false) words at the right time? Are you capable of being that icky?

We’re taught to think that our steadfastness in intimate relationships is cemented by the moments when we’re with someone in times of crisis. (“Honey, I was there for you when things went wrong!”) But in reality, people feel a teeny-weeny bit uncomfortable when you’re there as they hit bottom. There’s no surer signal than your sympathy to indicate to them that they’re losers. Sympathy is wonderful and all, but how do they move on from that big-L-stuck-to-forehead loser mentality? Do they always have to feel inferior to you?

It may be much more important to be there when things go right, according to studies from UCLA and the University of Rochester. When someone tells you about something terrific that just happened to them, do you light up and show some love? Great! In that case, they actually perceive the event as more important, and your enthusiastic response promotes a bond of trust between you and the other person. But if you’re only quietly supportive, that’s not so valuable. And it’s really problematic if your response is either active-destructive (“Jeez. Why would management pick you for that project?”) or passive-destructive – that is, you ignore what they just said (“Hey! Guess who retweeted me today!”). Gentlemen? Have you ever been guilty of such a callous or clueless response? I thought so. But can you truly fake enthusiasm? Yes, says Dr Todd Kashdan, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University. “When we give an enthusiastic, interested response, even if we pretend, the same benefits occur,” he says. “People feel more excited about the good thing that happened – and they feel more invested in you.” Times like this separate you from the other people who are on the periphery of that person’s life.

Kashdan’s latest experiment illustrates the importance of proper reactions in a relationship. He brought 180 couples into his lab and had one member of each couple share something positive that recently happened in his or her life. Six months later, those partners who had not provided spirited responses were more likely to be in Splitsville. “People want to feel their life is cool,” Kashdan says. “So throw them a bone.” Even if you’re not really excited for them at first, your enthusiasm will usually kick in. And, all things considered, isn’t it better to be a faker than a jerk?

Let’s summarise what we’ve learned: faking it makes you more confident, helps you connect with your friends, and gives you an edge in negotiating with your enemies. Where’s the harm, you say? A few moments of artfulness for specific situations, you say. It’s not like anyone’s suggesting that we make a habit of faking it. It’s not like anyone’s promising a better life, a life of health and wealth and lollipops. Oh yes they are.

In what has to be one of the most intriguing psychology experiments ever conducted, Harvard psychologist Dr Ellen Langer, once recruited 16 elderly men and took them off to a monastery in New Hampshire for a week. Half the men spent the time reminiscing about the year 1959; the rest actually pretended it was 1959. They watched Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny on black-and-white television; they listened to Perry Como and talked about bomb shelters. They lived as if the “nifty fifties” were happening all over again.

At the end of the week, all the men scored better on measures of grip strength, memory, and hearing, but the eight who’d spent the week faking it scored well in other areas too. Sixty-three percent showed improved intelligence test scores, versus 44% of the control group. Before and after photos of the let’s-pretend men were shown to a random group of observers, who said the men all looked noticeably younger by the end of the study.

Langer used that study as a springboard for her 2009 book Counter Clockwise (R128,, which recounts her other studies over the years, all of which prove the same general point: when people think they’re healthier, they actually become healthier. And what if you pretend to be happy? Will you become happier? That’s a popular notion in American culture, and it’s been around for a long, long time. Just listen to this bit of advice, doled out more than a century ago by William James, the father of American psychology: “Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”

Update the lingo and you have one of the core messages of today’s positive-psychology movement.

One of its leading lights is Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside. In her 2008 book The How of Happiness (R148,, she breaks down the pursuit of our longing into 12 activities. They are a sensible and scientifically validated dozen: expressing gratitude, avoiding overthinking, practicing acts of kindness, savouring life’s joys… all good stuff. But there, at the end, nestled in “Happiness Activity No. 12: Taking Care of Your Body” is “Acting Like a Happy Person”. Her advice: “Act as if you were confident, optimistic and outgoing. You’ll manage adversity, rise to the occasion, create instant connections, make friends and influence people, and become a happier person.”

And if you’re happier, according to a hundred different studies, you’ll be more likeable, creative, accomplished and successful. Plus, you’ll catch fewer colds. Really? All that just by faking it? I called Lyubomirsky on it ¬– literally. “It’s maybe the least powerful of the 12 strategies in my book, but it’s still a tool,” she says. Look at it this way: we’re social creatures. For most of us, happiness and success in life hinges on how well we interact with others. If you’re glum you’ll get no traction, and the reason is very simple. As Lyubomirsky puts it, “We don’t like to approach people who look unhappy.” Okay, okay, she’s right. If your authentic self is Eeyore, maybe a little fakery could do you good.

Dr William Flesson, has taken an interest in the Eeyores of the world. As a psychology professor at Wake Forest University, Fleeson has spent the past decade wondering why some people are introverted and others are extroverted, and whether there’s really much difference between the two types. From his studies with students who recorded their actions and feelings on an hourly, daily or weekly basis, he has concluded that extroverts sometimes act introverted, and introverts sometimes act extroverted. In other words, he finds that extroversion and introversion are not so much fixed traits as momentary states, with so-called extroverts rating themselves as “talkative”, “active”, “energetic”, “assertive”, and “adventurous” relatively more often than introverts do. And Fleeson also corroborates what other researchers have concluded: extroverts are happier than introverts. But he wondered whether introverts could be happy, too, if they acted like extroverts. Or, as the subtitle of one of his research papers put it, “Is Acting Extroverted as ‘Good’ as Being Extroverted?” Are you with me here? Fleeson actually conducted an experiment on whether you can fake it till you make it! He had 47 students meet in small groups; each student was randomly assigned to act either introverted or extroverted during a 10-minute group discussion. When the time was up, participants rated their own behaviour and mood before joining another group discussion and acting the opposite way. The result: nearly everyone was happier when acting extroverted. Including the introverts. As Fleeson puts it, “Tell people to be extroverted, and 10 minutes later they’re having a blast.”

But he was bothered by the idea that his results might encourage people to be inauthentic to their true selves – the kind of pretense that eventually takes a toll on mental health. So he recently conducted four more studies – three in his lab with university students who took part in activities like Twister or debates about medical ethics, and one with a broader range of participants (ages 18 to 51) who rated their behaviour several times a day as they went about their lives. Here’s what he found: although introverts thought they would feel most authentic while acting introverted, their responses were actually quite different when they were caught in the moment and quizzed about whether they were being true to themselves.

“Introverts were not ‘faking it’ when they acted extroverted,” Fleeson says. “All the participants said they were more true to themselves while they were playing the role of an extrovert, even if they were introverts.” Furthermore, it’s not that hard for them; it doesn’t wear them out or make them anxious to be extroverted. When introverts act less shy/lethargic and more assertive/energetic, “they are becoming more authentic, not less so,” he says.

Damn. I hate being wrong. The world is still full of manipulative phonies, but sometimes this advice is smart and genuinely helpful: fake it till you make it. There was a kernel of truth rattling around in there after all.

I almost forgot. The only reason you’re still reading this article is to learn something about faking it in the sack. And why is that? Because you’re already faking it? (Yes, a quarter of men have done so.) Or because you suspect that she’s faking it? (According to a Trojan 2Go survey, 53% of men aren’t sure if their partners fake it.) The world’s foremost authority on this topic, Erin Cooper, is still working on her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but already she has interviewed close to 1 500 young women, ages 18 to 32, who admit to play acting at orgasm on occasion. Asked why, the various answers can be grouped into four categories: (1) She wants to spare your feelings, a ploy Cooper calls “altruistic deceit”; (2) She doesn’t want you to think there’s something wrong but doesn’t know how to talk about it, and a cluster of similar reasons that Cooper labels “fear and insecurity”; (3) She wants to go to sleep already. But get a load of reason 4: she’s actually turning herself on by doing so. Cooper’s contribution to the sum of human knowledge regarding female orgasm is answer 4. Nobody thought of that before. Nobody considered that faking it could actually be a good thing.

The women who cite that final reason “are faking an orgasm to increase their arousal in the moment,” says Cooper. “It’s a tool women use to make sure they have a good time. My guess is that, for some, they’re literally faking it till they make it.”

Which doesn’t help you much, but… wait. What the hell am I saying? Of course it helps you! Nothing is so arousing as an aroused mate! And if you suspect that’s what she’s doing (Can you tell? No, says Cooper, you probably can’t), pretend you don’t know anything. Be clueless. In this case, it’s working for you.


When she wants you to fake it