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How to Harness the Self-Enhancement Bias (and Claim a Bigger Life)

In yesterday’s post, “My 7 Favorite Practices for Engineering the Good Life,” [1] I included a curveball of sorts—right at the end. Chase down fear.

While all seven have been game changers [2], that one claims the pinnacle. The fact is, it’s the hardest one to embrace time and again, but it’s never ceased to move my life forward in very clear, tangible ways. Still, every time I have to talk myself through the same process.… How can I possibly take on something this substantial? What am I thinking? That one’s just too big, too complicated, too ambitious. This time, surely, you’ve overstretched, Sisson.

But in that moment I remind myself that those feelings don’t drive the bus for me. They won’t be the ones doing the work to make a vision happen (they never are). A stronger, bolder, more adept self-concept [3] will be leading the charge. Because that’s what formidable challenges call for. If I want something big, resisting fear will keep me from it every time. If, on the other hand, I can bluntly tell fear, “You’ve met your match,” suddenly the game looks much different.

When we take on a significant health goal [4], when we’re staring down what it can take to lose 100 pounds or run a half marathon or beat back an autoimmune disorder or start what will be a new life or lifestyle, it can seem like meeting the impossible. A stronger person, a better person, a more disciplined person might do this, we think.

But not a different person, I’d add. It’s simply time to tap a dimension of self that already exists, listening to the inner voice that says with all the daring of an 8-year-old on a dirt bike, it’s go time.

In the moment of gazing down a long, steep trail from those handlebars, you have a choice about how to see yourself. It’s much the same as when you face any challenge [5]—a snarling predator or life and limb emergency, but the choice might feel more automatic then…and for good reason.

Researchers have identified something called the “self-enhancement bias,” a pattern in the human psyche that naturally moves the needle of our self valuation [6] toward the positive. It describes a range of behaviors that sway our confidence contrary to what an empirical assessment might suggest about our present abilities or willingness.

And its evolutionary logic moves us. We feel emboldened to take a bigger risk, a greater chance than we might otherwise take if we sat in front of a pro and con list. Greater risk could mean greater danger, but it could also mean greater benefit. Audacity only had to help just enough to be adaptive, and the social (and mating) status advantage would’ve been an undeniably powerful factor in the cost-benefit analysis [7]—not necessarily to the individual in the moment but to the overall evolutionary picture. (PDF [8])

Of course, the ethics of small band society and the ultimate threat of death or dismemberment likely kept this instinct in check. Bravado is different than confidence, and bravery looks decidedly different than foolhardiness. I’ll admit it’s an urge we need to use carefully and consciously.

Still, I think there’s something essential here that often gets missed. It’s easy to spend so much time focused on the negative self-talk [9]—the social, cultural and familial layers of baggage some of us carry—that we lose sight of what’s innate in us, the power that exists untapped.

What if we could get quiet enough to let that old, gutsy instinct rise to the surface? What if we could learn to listen to its message, feel its energy? Trust that it courses through us, too? What if we could imagine that this instinct can move us beyond the limitations of what has been true for us in the past? What if we could get out of the way and let it do the work of enhancing our own self-efficacy? What if we could retrieve the emboldened self, believe it, and put it in the driver’s seat toward our goals?

I’m not saying that substantial change doesn’t depend on the regular practice of sensical tactics, scientifically rooted strategy. We want a new life, we have to live new details. But as I mentioned above, we may also need to live out of a new belief [10]—and a lot more nerve.

Can we harness this peripheral primal tendency? If we feel too distanced from it by the sediment of experience, can we reconnect with it—to see ourselves in a bigger way, a broader story? It may just be that reclaiming this drive will be what cracks the parameters that have unnecessarily defined us and what we feel is possible.

Thanks for reading, everybody. Have a good end to the week.