If you give runners performance enhancing drugs they run faster. The thing is, they run faster even if they only think they took the drug.
Powerlifters who were given a sugar pill lifted 4% heavier weight when they were told it was a steroid.
Ron Weasley became the best quidditch goalie at Hogwarts when he thought Harry Potter gave him a tincture of Liquid Luck.
This is the power of a placebo. Better said, this is the power of a story.
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups explains how a story can radically alter behavior:
“We tend to use the word story casually, as if stories and narratives were ephemeral decorations for some unchanging underlying reality. The deeper neurological truth is that stories do not cloak reality but create it, triggering cascades of perception and motivation. The proof is in brain scans: When we hear a fact, a few isolated areas of our brain light up, translating words and meanings. When we hear a story, however, our brain lights up like Las Vegas, tracing the chains of cause, effect, and meaning. Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.” (p. 182)
Coyle goes on to describe a method of story-formation that works wonders for goal achievement:
“Step 1: Think about a realistic goal that you’d like to achieve. It could be anything; Become skilled at a sport, rededicate yourself to a relationship, lose a few pounds, get a new job. Spend a few seconds reflecting on that goal and imagining that it’s come true. Picture a future where you’ve achieved it.
Step 2: Take a few seconds and picture the obstacles between you and that goal as vividly as possible. Don’t gloss over the negatives, but try to see them as they truly are. For example, if you were trying to lose weight, you might picture those moments of weakness when you smell warm cookies, and you decide to eat one (or three).
That’s it. It’s called mental contrasting, and it seems less like science than the kind of advice you might come across on a late-night infomercial: Envision a reachable goal, and envision the obstacles. The thing is . . . this method works, triggering significant changes in behavior and motivation. In one study, adolescents preparing for the PSAT who used this method chose to complete 60 percent more practice questions than the control group. In another, dieters consumed significantly fewer calories, were more physically active, and lost more weight.” (p. 181).