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Changing Your Mind?

Is it really possible to manipulate one’s worldview by modifying our language?

“A woman sitting with her chin on her hands” by Ben White on Unsplash

I read an article in Inc. about whether one has a fixed or a growth mindset, and how that can affect one’s life chances:

Find Out If You Have a Fixed or Growth Mindset. The Clues Are in Your Language |

Before I dig any further, I’m going to say that I do agree with the initial premise of the article: that if you frame problems and shortcomings as inherent parts of your being, you’re likely to be less flexible & successful than those who see setbacks and failures as things they have experienced. But after this, my view diverges from the path the Inc. article leads us down.

The article moves on to methods of changing that mindset, which seem over-ambitious, to put it mildly. People can and do change their overall mindset, but this is not a trivial matter. It can take a huge conscious effort on the part of the individual, and/or some life-changing external stimulus. While many of us like to think of ourselves as open-minded and adaptable, the reality is that personality changes are usually subtle and gradual, with drastic changes occurring only as a result of extreme circumstances.

Before I was able to access proper, effective mental health treatment, I was sent on an online CBT course that claimed similar things — that all one needed to do to overcome depression, or “the blues” as they called it, was to reframe the way negative life events were perceived. During my time on the course, my suspicions were raised by the contrived, one-size-fits-all nature of the program.

In spite of the course emphasising its evidence-based approach, all it really seemed to offer was a practical solution to an emotional problem, i.e. one that wouldn’t work. Depression, like all mental illnesses, is a complex cocktail of biological, psychological and environmental factors [1] and the gold-standard treatment option is combined medication and therapy [2]. It is not something that can be resolved by an 8-week online course that tells you to break your problems down into ‘manageable chunks’ or that creating a daily schedule is going to lift the feelings of crushing dread and inertia.

The key similarity between the Inc. article’s claim that a change in mindset could be brought about by using different language, and the online CBT course I took, was in a module on “PIG” and “SET” beliefs. PIG beliefs are Permanent, Internal and General; SET beliefs are Specific, External and Temporary. The idea is that if a good thing happens to us, we should see it as a “PIG” event — it’s not a one-off, it is inherent to us, and it’s due to our general competence. If we experience something bad, we should look at it as a “SET” problem — a specific issue that wasn’t down to us, and only a temporary problem.

Conversely, someone with a more pessimistic attitude will see successes as temporary, down to something outside their influence and one specific thing going to plan rather than an overall sense of owning it — a “SET” occurrence. They would also view failures as symptomatic of their inherent worthlessness, due to things always going wrong for them, and their general inability to succeed at anything — a “PIG” problem.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

But encouraging someone with low self-esteem and/or depression to just look at things differently isn’t going to help, for two reasons:

  1. It’s not based on evidence. This method encourages the patient to simply look at a ‘win’ or a ‘loss’ in a different way; it doesn’t allow for a critical evaluation of the facts. Things could have gone well as a matter of chance, or one could have failed miserably because of their own shortcomings. Denying the facts is not going to help anyone get better from, or at, anything.
  2. It might be true that those with high and low self-worth do think of their problems and achievements in these sorts of ways, but simply suggesting that there’s another way of looking at things isn’t going to solve the underlying problem. Even with the homework element of the course, it’s not intensive or focussed enough to bring about a change in thinking or behaviour. The Guardian article linked below questions the effectiveness of such an online course, based on the rates of depression in the study groups, consisting of one group receiving regular NHS care, and two online CBT groups. The rates of depression in each of the three groups at various points during the study (3 months, 12 months, 24 months) were not significantly different and in many cases the CBT groups fared slightly worse than those receiving usual care.
Questions raised over effectiveness of online CBT for treating depression | Society | The Guardian

The study’s authors note that “The main reason for this was low adherence and engagement with treatment, rather than lack of efficacy.” Many of those put on the course did not complete it, or engage with the weekly sessions and homework. I can see a good reason for this — those participating in this form of treatment can see that it’s irrelevant and patronising. Depression is a complex neurobiological illness, with many possible causes that do not work in isolation. Stressful life events can be one such trigger, but concentrating only on this single possible aspect of the disease (as Beating the Blues does) doesn’t even offer a sticking-plaster solution.

The course material relies heavily on fictional case studies, where a character is worried about things like losing their job, or arguments with their mum and their inability to find a suitable man — practical problems that might be serious or trivial to any one of us, but unlikely to be helpful in addressing the root cause of depression. In terms of offering good life advice, yes, it does do that. But the exercises in the sessions and homework don’t seem designed to instil long-term changes in thinking and behaviour, and there is no means of following up on the success of the previous session other than a tick box exercise at the start of the next one.

Overly simplistic strategies like those employed by these online CBT courses are worthless without a clinician’s input to relate the material to the patient’s specific needs, and to monitor their progress and recovery. A human’s wisdom and expertise is, unsurprisingly, more effective than a semantic formula.

The argument of both the Inc. article and the online CBT methodology both appear to be rooted in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) theory. NLP is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to evidence and efficacy. There are some elements of NLP that do have some basis in fact, and are akin to the concept of “priming”. But many others are a bit sketchier, relying on theories little better than astrology. I’ve been in work scenarios where it is painfully obvious that someone is trying to use their NLP techniques on me, and it is embarrassing and condescending. If I can see through other people’s ham-fisted attempts at linguistic trickery, I can’t see me being able to convince myself with semantic games.

I’m not the only one questioning the validity of the Inc. article’s claims or the research behind it:

A Mindset “Revolution” Sweeping Britain’s Classrooms May Be Based On Shaky Science | BuzzFeed News

If you want to change your life, you can. But it’s contingent on a number of things, some of which are easier to manage than others. For example, having a positive outlook won’t make much difference if you’re stuck in a mundane, low-paying job, and your home life is marked by squalor and violence. We all have certain privileges and disadvantages that shape our lives, whether we choose to admit it or not.

Those of us with dreams and a mindset that allows us to see the means to achieve them, are more likely to experience success — but that’s far from saying we can divide mental processes down into two categories, and it doesn’t prove that rephrasing our appreciation of the facts will help us deal with them any differently. Our personalities exist as more of a tapestry than a spectrum, and each of these unique characters has qualities and deficits that can be exploited for gain.

Encouraging people to strive for better is generally a good thing, as long as it’s what they want. But we have to be realistic. Simple mental and linguistic tricks may be helpful if one has the inclination and ability to make use of them. But they’re not the key to long-term shifts in a person’s mindset. It takes a lot more work, from outside and within, to achieve that.


  1. Veale & Willson, 2005. Overcoming Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, pg 54
  2. NHS Choices, 2016.