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August 26, 2012

The As if principle (review of Rip it up by Richard Wiseman)

Perhaps the title of Richard Wiseman's new book, "Rip It Up: The radically new approach to changing your life" book does not attract you. The author says you, as a reader, are expected to rip out pages of the book which you may not find an appealing thought. Also you may be turned off by the "radical new approach to changing your life" claim in the title. Aren't things promoted too often as radically new which are, in fact, not radically new at all? Anyway, the book description says the approach is based on decades of research, so what is radically new about that? Also, you may feel you do not need help and are therefore not inclined to read self-help books (which this appears to be).


I had such initial objections but decided to read the book because I liked Wiseman's books  59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot and Paranormality. Also, I read that the basic idea behind the book was based on William James' idea that changing our behavior will lead to changes in our beliefs and emotions. Being a fan of James and believing that focusing on desired behavior is often the best key to improvement, I decided to read the book. I am glad I did. The book is both highly educational and entertaining.

The core message of the book is that conventional wisdom is wrong about the assumption that emotions and beliefs cause behaviors and not the other way around. William James suggested that, actually, emotion does follow behavior. This hypothesis suggested that people could change their feelings by changing their behaviors. James did not experimentally test his hypothesis but others did. James Laird, in the 1960s, for instance, had people produce a (fake) smile on their faces and found evidence that this cause them to feel happier. As a name for the causal influences of behavior on emotions and beliefs Wiseman suggests the As if principle. As it turns out, there is now a lot of evidence for the As if principle.

Throughout the book Wiseman describes evidence for the As if principle in domains such as happiness, love, physical and mental health, willpower, creativity, persuasion, and self-transformation. All research is described in a practical and clear manner and ranges from classic studies such as the prison experiment by Zimbardo and the week of reminiscence experiment by Ellen Langer to many newer and lesser known studies. The applications of the As if principle are countless and refer to behaviors like facial expressions, the way we move, the words we use, our body postures, the effect of small steps, etcetera. The As if principle is a useful concept which unifies and makes sense of many findings from different fields within psychology.

I still think the title of the book isn't the best and I am still reluctant about the ripping out pages. But the book is an excellent social psychology book which I highly recommend.