Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Becoming the Play-Actor of Your Ideals

I was sitting in a waiting room reading a popular magazine, when I came across an interesting quote from actor/director Mel Gibson. The interviewer pointed out that many of the actors in his latest film, Apocalypto, had no acting experience. Was it difficult, the interviewer asked, to work with them as a director?

Gibson's response was that it wasn't all that hard. To teach someone to act, he insisted, what you need to do is show them how to breathe the emotions they are trying to portray. If actors can shift their breathing, Gibson implied, they can enter into the emotional states demanded by their roles.

To be sure, I haven't agreed with all of Gibson's comments of late, but this one struck me as particularly perceptive. There are approaches to short-term therapy that purposely increase a client's anxiety, by confronting patterns of avoidance, resistance to change, and defensiveness. Under conditions of heightened emotion--particularly anxiety--individuals gain access to memories, insights, and perspectives that they didn't have when they first walked in the door. By shifting a person's state of mind and body, the psychologist also shifts their awareness.

Think about the phenomenon of test anxiety. A student can study hard for a test and know the material cold. Under conditions of performance anxiety, the student tenses up. Muscle tension increases, negative thoughts intrude, and breathing becomes more shallow. In Gibson's terms, the student is literally enacting a panicked mode by adopting the mindset and physical state of the anxious person. Once the state has shifted, the student no longer has access to what he or she already knows.

This illustrates that the state we're in either facilitates or blocks access to what we know. Stated otherwise, what we know is relative to the state we're in. Without realizing it, we are like actors, altering our breathing, our posture, our movement patterns, and our thought processes to create a convincing enactment. Actors and actresses, however, shift their states intentionally to generate their portrayals. When we shift states, it is most often without our conscious awareness.

I submit that access to our implicit knowledge about markets and trading patterns is mediated by the states we're in during our decision making. If our bodies are relatively immobile, our breathing is shallow, and our thoughts are worried, we are hardly creating the conditions by which we would normally experience ourselves as powerful, confident, and controlled. We fail because, unwittingly, we enact the role of the ineffective individual.

What if we tracked the states of mind and body that we're in when we're trading effectively and then consciously made efforts to access those states through the trading day? What if we followed Gibson's dictum and enacted the mental and physical processes associated with success? Quite a while ago, a social psychologist named Kelly invented a therapy in which he encouraged people to act out their ideals: to play-act the person they wanted to be. He even had them make up a name, personality, and history of the role that they were to portray.

What he found was that, as people played out their ideal roles, they began to get positive feedback. This, in turn, encouraged them to continue the role enactments, which in turn provided more good feedback. After a while, the roles became more natural: Kelly's clients internalized the roles that they were playing.

We often think that we have to change ourselves internally (our thoughts and feelings) in order to change our behavior. But what if we adopted very different behavior and *then* generated new sets of thoughts, feelings, and experiences? What if, to paraphrase Nietzsche, we became the play-actors of our ideals--and thereby moved closer to those ideals?

For those who have developed trading skills, perhaps success is just a matter of finding the mental, physical, and emotional state in which access to those skills can be maximized. There is much room for self-experimentation for traders inclined to work on themselves.


Michele said...

This is very interesting. I've tried this, in the guise of "Internal Observer" and definitely found it helpful. Somehow, it seems that splitting myself into the two roles of advisor and advisee allows me to make more insightful analyses of the markets than I could by "going it alone". It sounds schizophrenic, but it works!

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Hi Michele,

Thanks for the comment; I've found that to be very helpful. Sometimes I'll talk out loud my situation, which enables me to hear it in a more neutral way--as a listener, an outsider. That helps me get some perspective on the situation--almost as if I'm giving advice to someone else--


nemo said...

Friend of mine is a taoist priest originally from Russia. In martial training, often animal characteristics are invoked as a part of the training to enhance specific techniques.

On a recent trip back to Russia he talked about this with a psychologist friend of his, who now invokes the characteristics of animals (the quiet, stalking, aggressiveness of a panther for instance)in therapy sessions.

He literally has clients walk around trying to adopt these characteristics (such as an actor would of a character) and has had positive results.

Frankly this is no different from the psychosomatic feedback loop to which eastern traditions ascribe.

The practice of physical Qi Gong (yoga), the actual movements, affect the mental state and structure of the individual. As practice advances specific images and thoughts (colors, breathing/energy flow) are introduced, which then affect the body.