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Cognitive Dissonance, Confirmation Bias and Confidence Wiring

Writing and Mindset

Three aspects of writing and mindset

I’m going to look at three particular aspects of writing and mindset in this post – cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and confidence wiring. Actually, I’ve already been discussing them on the New Writing South blog here, where they were present incognito. But let’s look at them more specifically now.

The following ideas draw on ACT which stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. There’s a detailed definition of ACT on the Very Well Mind website but my understanding of it comes from the work of a GP and ACT practitioner called Russ Harris.

Drawing on ACT

In his book The Happiness Trap Harris uses ACT as an acronym for ‘Accept your thoughts and feelings, connect with your values and take effective action’ (p. 132). In another book co-authored with Joseph Ciarrochi and Ann Bailey, he uses an another acronym, OWL, to stand for ‘Observe, Willingness, and Living Your Values’ (The Weight Escape, pp. 204 – 205). In other words, pause and ask what’s going on, be willing to do what’s important to you even if it’s challenging, and in that moment of pause, think of your values. Both of these acronyms nicely sum up what ACT is about. I’ve come up with a couple of mnemonics of my own – KNOW and REWIRED – to help you apply these ideas to the writing process. So without further ado, here are the three concepts related to writing mindset.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the idea that the brain doesn’t like to hold on to two seemingly contradictory values, beliefs or concepts at the same time. You can find out more about cognitive dissonance in this post from Very Well Mind.

How does cognitive dissonance apply to the writing life?

If you read my first blog post on the New Writing South website here, you may have experienced cognitive dissonance when I asked you to think about or draw the fried egg model. It’s an exercise where I ask writers to decide which of their life contexts pull them away from their writing. Thoughts like this: I want to be a good mum and spend time with my kids. If I spend time writing, I’m not a good mum can not only make you feel uncomfortable or guilty, but they can also stop you from turning up to write. (By the way, I’m using examples that I’ve experienced myself, but if they don’t resonate with you, try swapping my examples with your own.) What can you do about it? One way is to make the process work for you by using the following KNOW model:

  • Know what your values are and what’s important to you. (The middle of your fried egg in the exercise I mentioned above.)
  • Notice when you get uncomfortable. Don’t back away from it.
  • Observe and investigate. Ask yourself where the discomfort is coming from.
  • Work it out. Use planning to create specific strategies to help instead of staying stuck.

Here’s another example. You know you want to be kind and friendly, and you also want to write. A friend wants you to help him when you would normally be writing. Following the KNOW model, what do you do?

Confirmation bias

Psychologists use a long list of cognitive biases. They are fascinating and can be fairly easily googled. One of the better known biases is confirmation bias. Here’s Very Well Mind again on confirmation bias.

Close your eyes and think of a colour. Open your eyes again. Did you see the colour? Our brains will look for the thing you’ve told them (often subconsciously) to look for. This will be based on previous experiences, and our tendency towards remembering the negative (or perceived threats), because our brains will try to keep us safe rather than happy.

For example, has someone in the writing world let you down in the past? If so your brain may be subconsciously looking for reasons not to trust someone in the publishing industry now. By the way, if you’re writing characters, confirmation bias can be a wonderful way to bring them to life – what do your characters ‘see’ when they look at the world and why?

How does confirmation bias affect your writing life?

You may be holding subconscious beliefs about yourself and the writing life that simply aren’t objectively true or aren’t true anymore. Beliefs like:

  • I could never be a published poet.
  • I’m not cut out for being a screenwriter.
  • I don’t have the discipline required to finish a novel.
  • Agents are only after what they can get.

They often start with ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t’ or ‘I could never’ and / or include words like ‘only’, ‘ever’, ‘always’ and ‘never’. (Did you uncover any beliefs like this when I suggested, in my post on the New Writing South website, that you turn up regularly?)

None of the above beliefs are objectively true, but if you’re holding onto them or something similar, your brain may be subconsciously looking for confirmation that they are in fact true, ignoring anything that contradicts the belief. What can you do about it?

  • If you can, catch yourself thinking your particular belief, pause and ask yourself ‘Is that really true?’ This takes practice, but if you catch yourself regularly enough you’ll start bringing those subconscious writing beliefs into the light.
  • Plan to take action more than once and follow through. For instance, if you write and send out one poem to one opportunity and it’s rejected, you may use it to ‘confirm’ the belief that you’ll never be a published poet. But if you plan several strategies – find a poetry mentor, take a class, work on a series of poems, send out ten poems by the end of the year – your brain will find it much much harder to ‘confirm’ the belief that you’ll never be a published poet.

Confidence wiring

This is the idea, which I came across in Marisa Peer’s work, that you can make yourself more confident by ‘rewiring’ your brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains can form new neural pathways throughout our lives and have coined the term ‘neuroplasticity’ to describe this process. It was Marisa Peer who said, in one of her meditation tracks, that ‘belief without talent will get you further than talent without belief.’ Self-belief is more important than developing your writing skills, although you need both to succeed!

Another psychologist, Dr Rick Hanson, who combines Buddhism and neuroscience, talks on his website about ‘positive neuroplasticity’. Therefore, as Marisa Peer, Rick Hanson and others have argued, you can deliberately encourage your brain to form new neural pathways, particularly in relation to confidence and self-belief. Could this help you to become a better writer? If so how? Let’s try a thought experiment.

A thought experiment

When I said earlier that self-belief is more important than developing your writing skills how did you feel? Annoyed, panicked, intrigued, cynical, pleasantly surprised? Or something else? And can you think of any ways in which lack of confidence has had a direct effect on the results you’re getting in your writing life?

No objective proof that your belief is true

If there’s no way of objectively ‘proving’ that a belief about you and your writing is correct, then you might as well believe a more kind, friendly or upbeat version instead. Where’s the benefit in continuing to believe the negative version?

OK, you might be thinking, but this is easier said than done. How do you go about ‘rewiring’ for confidence? Personally I like Marisa Peer’s approach to self-hypnosis – you can find her on YouTube – but if that’s not your cup of tea, try this, using the mnemonic REWIRED:

  • Review recent writing ‘events’ in your life and how you feel about them.
  • Educate yourself about how others have handled similar writing challenges.
  • Why do you want to write? Keep asking why until you get to your deepest reason.
  • Identify the idea you’re currently believing about your writing.
  • Reframe it: what’s the opposite belief? What’s halfway between the two beliefs?
  • Emotional response: how do you feel when you think the original and the reframed beliefs?
  • Decide what you would tell a close friend if they told you about these writing events and what they ‘prove’.

For more on being your own compassionate friend, take a look at Kristin Neff’s work, in particular The Self-Compassion Workbook.

Example

Here’s an example based on a real experience that happened as I was writing this post.

Review: My poetry pamphlet was rejected by a publisher. I feel upset.

Educate: Most poets I know have sent out their pamphlets multiple times before finding a publisher.

Why? I want to share these poems because (for me) they say something important about the grieving process.

Identify: I’ll never get my poetry pamphlet published.

Reframe: I’ll soon get my poetry pamphlet published. (Opposite) I might get my poetry pamphlet published. (halfway)

Emotion: Original: Unhappy. Upset. Opposite: Excited. Halfway: disappointed.

Decide what you’d tell a friend: Keep sending the poems out. You haven’t tried X publisher yet.

Adding another bias

I didn’t put these three cs – cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and confidence wiring – together arbitrarily. They fit together like a jigsaw, especially when we consider another ‘bias’ and that’s negativity bias. You can read more about negativity bias here on the Very Well Mind website.

Remember I said that our brains are trying to keep us safe rather than happy? That’s why we’re programmed to scan for problems, to look for the negative, so that we can protect ourselves from it. That’s all very well if a piano is about to fall from a great height onto the pavement we’re walking along, but if it’s a writing event or outcome that we experienced as negative, that’s not actually hurting us in any palpable way right now, we can learn to reframe it.

The poetry rejection I received was painful. Does that mean I should never send out my poetry pamphlet again? Does it mean I should think negative thoughts about the judge or the press? Or criticise them on Twitter? (If you’re tempted to do this, think ‘how will this help?’) Or do I take another look at the poems and rework them and find a different opportunity to send them to? Which of these is likely to get the poems out into the world?

Let’s look at this in action

Say I think: I’m not a good poet. I’m using this recent rejection as ‘proof’ of this thought. I tell myself ‘I’ll never get my pamphlet published.’ Here’s how – from a writing perspective – these psychological concepts are working:

Negativity bias – means I think about the thing that’s ‘gone wrong’, i.e. the rejection, rather than thinking of all the other times I’ve been published or considering the fact that a very small percentage of submissions are successful.

Cognitive dissonance – my brain doesn’t want to hold two opposing values or ideas at once, so I can’t think I’m a good poet and a bad one at the same time.

Confirmation bias – my brain scans for proof of what I already believe. Forgetting about all the times I have published my poems, my recent rejection proves (actually without any genuine logic) that ‘I’ll never get my pamphlet published.’

Confidence wiring – I could deliberately try to change my neural pathways, to change my belief that ‘I’ll never get my pamphlet published.’ Logically, I can’t know if this belief is true or not, because it refers to something that may or may not happen in the future, so I find a different idea to ‘believe’ instead.

What I love about these ideas is that they apply to everyone. I’m no longer alone with my fears about rejection or other aspects of the writing life. Everyone, every writer, every human, has these kinds of thoughts. Bringing them into the open is at least 75% of the battle.

Let me know in the comments how writing and mindset has affected you.

More soon. Until then, happy writing.

xx Louise

 

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