When I first started using Strava (Android / iOS), my weekly running mileage skyrocketed. Nothing had changed other than my perception of how much running was “enough.” Lots of people in my feed were clocking 40 to 60 miles a week, and suddenly my 20-mile weekly average seemed negligible.
The products we use can shape our perception of reality and, as a result, change our actions and lives—all by leveraging the much-studied yet still mysterious power of mindsets.
Mindsets are lenses we use to interpret and simplify the complex world around us. We use them to organize the otherwise overwhelming amount of information we ingest on a day-to-day basis. They color our beliefs about everything: food, intelligence, sleep, you name it.
Consequently, our mindsets can shape our experience of the world, our success, and even our health outcomes. Mindsets come from what we interact with—everything from the culture we live in to the people we spend time with and the products we use.
In this article, we’ll explain what a mindset is and how it impacts our reality; then we’ll zoom in on how the products we use shape our mindsets.
How do mindsets work?
There are several interconnected pathways through which mindsets affect our reality.
- Attention: Take stress as an example. As one group of researchers found, if you have the mindset that stress is debilitating, you’re more likely to notice and focus on your negative symptoms of stress than to pay attention to the ways stress may benefit you.
- Feelings: Mindsets change how we feel and what we expect to feel. In the same study, participants who saw stress as detrimental had lower mood than participants with the mindset that stress is enhancing. And no wonder—if you think of stress as a negative, you likely experience more agitation and negative feelings when you think of work or other responsibilities. In turn, those negative feelings drain you and leave you feeling more stressed, reinforcing a cycle that strengthens your negative mindset.
- Physiology: When you anticipate a sensation, your body prepares for it by activating or deactivating the relevant systems in the body. Negative mindsets about stress produce more anabolic growth hormones in response to stressors than positive mindsets about stress do. The placebo effect is another great example of this: When we expect to feel better, our body feels better, even if we’re getting a sham treatment.
Stanford’s Dr. Alia Crum has explored the physiological effects of mindsets in depth. Crum demonstrated that when a food is labeled as more “indulgent” or higher calorie, our body’s “hunger hormone” decreases significantly more than if the same food were labeled as “sensible” or lower calorie. Another study of hers showed that simply changing one’s mindset to think of household chores as exercise can lower blood pressure, body mass index, and other physiological factors.
- Motivation: Mindsets affect our motivation to take certain actions, and the actions we take modify our experience. Consider the term “growth mindset“: if you think of intelligence as fixed, you likely won’t be motivated to study or adjust after setbacks. On the other hand, if you think intelligence can change, you likely will be far more motivated to put effort into learning and won’t be as discouraged by something like a bad grade.
These four pathways are by no means isolated. In fact, each of them can reinforce one another and the mindset itself. For example, our attention causes us to focus on certain feelings more than others, which can strengthen those feelings’ effect on us. Our physiological experience might confirm our motivation to take certain actions over others.
Where do mindsets come from?
Our families, culture, and the products we use all mold our mindsets. Moreover, their influence is often implicit: our parents don’t sit us down one day to tell us to think of stress as a hindrance, but we adopt that mindset after watching them demonstrate it over time.
Another example is how many cultures paint exercise as a chore we have to do to be healthy, often by framing it as a way of “earning” food. They reinforce the mindset that exercise is unpleasant, painful, isolating, and difficult.
However, some people have the mindset that exercise is an indulgent period of time for themselves, or that it is social, fun, and exciting. They might have gotten that mindset from the people around them; maybe they grew up in a big mountain-biking or surfing town where activity was perceived as pleasurable.
We also play an active role in constructing our own mindset around exercise. If we intentionally engage in exercises we find pleasant, social, or fun rather than just dragging ourselves to the elliptical every day, we reinforce the mindset that exercise is enjoyable.
Mindsets are pliant, and the things we are exposed to make a big difference in shaping our mindsets. Furthermore, influences on our mindsets often happen under the radar. That’s why it’s important to realize how the products we use subtly modify our mindsets.
How are mindsets embedded in the products we use?
Our mindsets can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what they prompt us to think, feel, and do. Because our mindsets are affected by what we’re exposed to every day, it’s worth contemplating how the products and technologies we use impact our mindsets and therefore our happiness and well-being.
Here are a few specific examples of how certain technologies might change your mindsets and affect your health and well-being:
Sleep technologies: Research suggests that how much sleep we think we get can affect cognitive outcomes more than how much sleep we actually get. These findings have implications for sleep trackers. If you wake up thinking you slept well but your sleep tracker says you hardly got any shut-eye, your perception changes—now you think you didn’t sleep well after all. Due to that perception, you may expect a lower level of energy and functioning the rest of the day, and those expectations will likely be self-fulfilling. In that way, sleep trackers can be detrimental. Of course, the opposite is also true: If you think you slept poorly but your sleep tracker says you had a great night’s rest, you’ll likely feel better than if you had kept the mindset that you slept badly.
Screen time and social media: Thinking about the side effects of a pill before you take it makes them more likely to happen. The same is true of thinking about the potential side effects of the time you spend on your phone. One study found that people’s perception of how problematic smartphone use is predicted mental health outcomes such as anxiety, stress, and depression much better than screen time did. So before you classify social media as detrimental and try to go on a digital detox, consider changing your mindset about how harmful it is.
Exercise trackers: Exercise habit trackers like the Apple Health app or Strava sometimes set arbitrary or relative expectations for the right amount of exercise. Research has shown that how much exercise we think we’re getting relative to others significantly affects our long-term health outcomes and life expectancy. One study found that perceived activity levels relative to peers was associated with mortality rates even after adjusting for actual activity levels.
Step trackers like Apple Health and Fitbit (Apple/Android) can shape our perception of whether we’re doing enough activity, in part by giving us the arbitrary 10,000-step benchmark. If you don’t hit this mark, you may feel as if you’re not exercising enough, and that perception could harm your health.
Other fitness apps, such as Strava, show you a feed of other people’s activities so you can compare your amount of exercise to that of your peers. If your Strava feed is full of folks doing ultramarathons, you may feel as if your five-mile runs aren’t adequate activity. On the other hand, if your feed is full of people doing short runs and walks, you may perceive your five-mile runs to be more than enough activity. Both perceptions may ultimately affect your health.
Meditation apps: In an effort to keep us engaged, meditation apps like Headspace (Apple/Android) and Calm (Apple/Android) will send us notifications saying that our minds can’t be healthy or at peace without meditation. These messages may spark a similar perception of inadequacy about mental health as the arbitrary 10,000-step mark does for physical health. By shaping our perception about how mentally healthy we are, they shape our emotions and experiences too.
Genetic testing: Many people use take-home genetic tests such as 23andMe to get DNA results. While these may provide information and satisfy curiosity, it’s also important to note how the results impact our mindsets. In one study, psychologists at Stanford looked at how perceptions of genetic predispositions around food and exercise changed participants’ physiological response to food and exercise. They found that what participants were told about their genome mattered more than their actual genetic makeup: when participants thought they were genetically predisposed to a lower cardiovascular capacity, their physiological capability decreased. Similarly, when participants were told their genome indicated they would feel less satiated in response to food, they had a lower ghrelin response to food (a hormone involved in satiety) than they had before the results.
What should we take away from all this?
Our mindsets are powerful, malleable, and derived from the products, culture, and people we interact with every day. Sometimes the products we use ingrain mindsets in us implicitly, just by structuring information a certain way or using particular language in things like notifications.
Several types of technologies have influential effects on our mindsets and thereby our experiences, health, and well-being.
With this information in mind, keep an eye out for the mindsets embedded in the technologies you use. Is your sleep report prompting you to form low expectations for your output at work that day? Do you feel needlessly guilty about using social media? Do you consider yourself less healthy because you don’t walk 10,000 steps a day? Do you feel ashamed when you get reminders from meditation apps since you aren’t meditating? Can you modify your media and feeds to reinforce the mindset that you are doing enough relative to people around you?
Noticing the mindsets that these products promote is the first step in investigating whether you’ve adopted those mindsets and how they impact your life.
We play an active role in shaping our perceptions about the world. Knowing how the products we interact with influence our mindsets is key to being effective in that role.
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