What’s possible for you and your team? A landmark study shows that it depends on what you think is possible.
You know those vision tests at the eye doctor?
The ones that have the big E on top and then eleven subsequent rows with an increasing number of letters that are smaller in size? It’s called a Snellen chart (named after Dutch ophthalmologist Herman Snellen), and the goal is to measure your vision and focus.
The standard chart was originally placed at twenty feet away, which is why most of us have come to understand 20/20 as having perfect vision.
As a former F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot in the US Navy, I’m very familiar with vision tests. As you might imagine, there are strict vision requirements for flying multimillion-dollar machinery 40,000 feet in the air with varying levels of visibility or at Mach 2. Fighter pilots have to undergo rigorous testing to demonstrate their perfect 20/20 eyesight. That means you sit in that optometrist’s chair and you read every little letter on that Snellen chart—no glasses, no contacts. That means no color-blindness and no fuzzy bottom line.
Most of us believe that eyesight is a pretty fixed thing. You can read the letter or you can’t. But one groundbreaking experiment points to the possibility that vision can be tangibly affected by mindset. If that’s true, the sky’s the limit on what else our beliefs and mindsets may affect. After all, achievement and innovation both require a leader—and a team—to break out of our usual conceptions of what is strictly possible.
This study, based in the commonly held belief that pilots have superior vision, was conducted by Ellen Langer, PhD, renowned social psychologist and the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University.
Langer’s research team tested the eyesight of a group of students from MIT’s ROTC program—none were pilots at the time—then put them in the uniform and environment of a fighter pilot. They donned the students in green Nomex flight suits and placed them into a flight simulator, specifically instructing them to actively imagine themselves as pilots. The simulator consisted of an actual cockpit, including all the bells and whistles mounted on hydraulic lifts that mimicked the movement and performance of a fighter jet.
The fact that the researchers would be testing their vision inside the cockpit was never mentioned to the new “pilots.”
Langer simulated four aircraft approaching from the front, each with a serial number on the wing. The volunteers were told to read the serial numbers on the four wings, which, unbeknownst to them, were equivalent to the smaller lines on a Snellen chart.
Langer, secretly and smartly, was administering the optometrist’s standard eye exam under the guise of her participants playing pilot.
A control group took the same initial vision test, then sat in the cockpit with the simulator turned off. They simply watched the computer-generated planes whir by and read the serial numbers as instructed.
What did she find? Unmistakably, the “pilots” showed improvement in their vision. Four out of the ten volunteers could see better when playing pilot. And how many of the “controls” who sat unmoving in their normal jeans and T-shirts demonstrated improvement?
Zero. Zilch. Nada.
But Langer and her team wanted to rule out any effects that motivation might have. They wanted to clarify the extent to which the vision improvement was a matter of mindset. So the researchers brought another group of people into the cockpit and asked them to read a brief essay on motivation. After people finished reading, they were given pep talks and told to “keep motivated” and “try hard to have better vision” to perform well in the vision test.
With the simulator inactive, they began their test. There was no improvement. What does all of this mean? The study suggests that simply believing that pilots have good vision was enough to sharpen the volunteer pilots’ eyesight.
I guess believing really is seeing.
As you’re probably thinking, that was an elaborate experiment. Plus, the number of participants was small. Langer thought so too. So she decided to explore the question in a completely different way. In a second experiment, she tested the belief that athletes have good vision.
Langer tested the eyesight of a larger group of volunteers, all with similar natural athleticism. She had some do jumping jacks while others simply skipped around the room. She wanted to balance the experiment by having all the participants be active but figured that psychologically, jumping jacks would be seen as more athletic than skipping.
When she retested their eyesight, a third of the jumping-jack volunteers had better vision, while only one of the skippers showed improvement. Remember, they all were physically similar. The only thing that differentiated the two groups was their psychological mindset as a result of jumping or skipping. That was enough to sharpen their view of the world.
Langer didn’t stop there, though. She ran a final experiment, this one taking advantage of the mindset primed by the traditional Snellen chart.
When we find ourselves getting our yearly checkup, many of us are used to getting more and more uncertain of our choices as the letters get smaller and smaller. We may expect to read the first few lines perfectly clearly, but by the third line, we can find ourselves at a total loss.
If mindsets really do affect and change us, maybe instead of being externally manipulated by subtle scientific priming, we can be more intentional with our thinking.
In her final experiment, Langer and her team showed people a “reversed” and “shifted” chart. At the top, it included letters equivalent in size to the letters on the third line, and the chart progressed to letters of very small size at the bottom. Because people were expecting to read the top few lines with ease, they were able to read much smaller letters as well. Overall, the volunteers saw letters that they normally couldn’t see. Because they inherently believed they would be able to read the top of the chart, they did—regardless of the actual font size.
What does all of this mean?
If mindsets really do affect and change us, maybe instead of being externally manipulated by subtle scientific priming, we can be more intentional with our thinking and do that reevaluation ourselves.
And instead of just positive reappraisal—seeing the good in things—we can try for possible reappraisal as a way of seeing what really is feasible for us when we take our limiting beliefs out of the picture.
Psychology can trump biology.
Belief can trump improbability.
Mindset can trump impossibility.
That goes for fighter pilots and “fighter pilots,” athletes and “athletes,” you and the you that you might become.
Here’s the lesson, y’all: You can do more than you think you can do. You can go beyond the mental boxes you’ve placed yourself—and your team—in. And if you want to innovate, going beyond those boxes isn’t just a good idea. It’s a requirement.
We’ve all done the limiting self-talk: “I’m just not good at math,” “I could never play guitar like he does,” “Girls don’t do that kind of job,” “Someone has already said it; I have nothing new to say,” “That company is already way ahead of us,” or “My team is stuck in a rut.”
Sound familiar? These statements are all fear talking—and it’s whispering self-defeating things. You take them to heart, even though you would never dream of saying such things to anyone else! Nine times out of ten, the fear is telling you a bullshit story—yet you believe it. Even worse, that fear and those limitations are likely coming across to your team, infiltrating how they, too, think about themselves.
Our self-talk influences our and our team’s mindset, abilities, talents, potential, and even intelligence.
So how do we boost our confidence to tilt toward what is possible? And how can we change the way we talk not only to ourselves but also our teammates, family, friends, and kids?
A straightforward way to practice leaving room for the possible is to ask these questions:
- What is possible if we put in the work?
- What is possible if we channel our fear, frustration, passion, or anger?
- What is possible if we take action?
- What is possible if we try something new?
- What is possible if we succeed?
- What is possible to learn if we fail?
- What is possible if we channel our energy for a cause or purpose outside of our own?
The language you use to frame your experience will dictate your mindset around the possibility for success.
When struggling, tell yourself: “I just don’t have it yet” or “We’re not there yet.” This sets up the possibility of success. Then continue to do the work, to take action, to learn, to improve, to get closer to discovering what is possible for you, your team, and your organization.
This article was adapted from Carey Lohrenz’s book, Span of Control: What to Do When You’re Under Pressure, Overwhelmed, and Ready to Get What You Really Want (ForbesBooks 2021). Visit careylohrenz.com/span-of-control for more information.