Last night, Katie and I watched a recent film called ‘The Experiment’ which is an equally violent and bloody remake of the German film Das Experiment of a few years back. Aidrien Brodie and Forrest Whitaker starred so I expected it to be good, you can view the trailer here:

The films are loosely based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in the summer of 1971, whereby a team of researchers led by Psychology professor Phillips Zimbardo divided a group of undergraduates randomly into two groups, prisoners and prison guards. They then had to act out their respective roles in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

I remember one of my early NLP trainers telling the class that it was a good idea to get your clients doing the exercises standing up and moving around because “motion creates emotion” and it helped to get people moving around to access their emotions.

With the Stanford prison experiment, the guards began to display authoritarian attitudes, ultimately subjecting some of the prisoners to intentional humiliation. The prisoners developed passive attitudes, many sinking into a depressed state. The experiment had to be stopped after only six days. You have to question the ethics of such an experiment…

At the end of the film that we watched last night, there is a moment, when the prisoners and guards are fighting, that they all suddenly reflect on who and how they are being and realise how crazy their behaviours have become as a result of acting out and engaging in the actions of these roles.

The Stanford prison experiment is often said to illustrate the power of social roles in shaping behaviour, but it also illustrates the power of behaviour and physical actions to elicit real powerful emotions. Once each of the participants began to act the part and engage in the roles, they began to feel the part. That is the theme of this blog entry today.

Ever notice how the dancers and contestants in BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing often end up having affairs? Their dances often involve acting out love. They behave as if they are in love. Both are usually young and attractive (ok, so Anne Widdecombe is not going to be ‘deflowered’ by Anton this year, but you know what I mean in general terms, don’t you?).

They have a great deal in common while dancing together. They spend a lot of time with each other on a daily basis while training and performing. All these factors and known to increase attraction and even love.

Within the dances, they have to act like people who care deeply for each other. They look into each other’s eyes, they touch each other, often provocatively. They act out the behaviours of love. No wonder the emotion of love and/or attraction often follows.

So the notion here today is that actions and behaviours can create emotions and not just the other way around. The psychologist/philosopher William James argued that without some kind of bodily response (crying, trembling, striking) we would not feel emotion.

One of the points he demonstrated is an important point; that behaviour can create emotion.

A lot of research in clinical psychology has shown that the fastest way to change an emotion is to change the behaviour attached to it. The idea itself is not new. For example, there were numerous behavioural theorists back in the 70s believed that depression was, indirectly, a result of inactivity: after many failures and disappointments, people stopped trying and withdrew from the world; withdrawal and inactivity, however, decrease the possibility of positive interactions or experiences, hence isolation and passivity increase, hence depression.

Behavioural treatment for depression, then, revolves around getting the client to change behaviours in order to experience a change in mood – often referred to as behavioural activation.

In my members area this week, with some of my current students, I have been running an exercise asking them to do things differently in their days for a week, interrupting patterns and adopt new behaviours from those they usually display. Something I am incredibly keen on doing in therapy with my clients as well as for my own development.

A recent edition of Radio 4’s All In The Mind show interviewed a psychologist who took long walks in the countryside with any of his depressed patients that wanted to join him. The action of walking and being in nature helped a great deal according to their reports.

The principle that behaviour shapes emotion is applied by some these days in the treatment of depression by using a technique called ‘activity planning,’ in which clients are asked to reintroduce into their lives activities that are associated with feelings of achievement and pleasure.

This takes the notion of ‘going for a walk in the countryside’ to another level. Therapists work with clients to look at the specific behaviours that the client already has, and then adopt small steps and increments of change. The idea is that they build newer, more effective ways of behaving that enhance how they feel.

There are doubtless several reasons that activity leads to changes in mood. Physical activity is known to lead to a feeling of well-being by releasing a number of feelgood chemicals, not to mention increasing heart capacity and muscle strength, improving appearance, etc. Our bodies are built for motion, and they feel good moving.

Being active in the world also gets you to be around people. We are social animals, and social interaction has positive effects on our mood. The single best predictor of human happiness is the quality of social relationships. Moreover, activity often amounts to practice, which improves skill, which improves our ability to obtain rewards in the environment.

The shortest, most reliable way to change how you’re feeling is to change what you’re doing. When you feel bad, don’t wait to feel good to do what you love. Start doing what you love. Good feelings will likely follow.

Whenever i tell people about my running exploits, they often say they need to be in the right frame of mind, or feeling good enough to get themselves out and running. Yet I am a firm believer, that when you get yourself out there, you’ll start to feel better and will certainly be pleased afterwards. You don’t have to start running marathons, just incorporate activity into your existence.

I think the message today is a simple one… Get active!