People say that you have to watch what you say and do around young kids, because kids don’t have a filter.

Well, we learned that lesson when my son was in first grade, and we had just moved to the neighborhood.

To provide a bit of context, my wife and I don’t generally keep any alcohol around the house, but my wife does have the occasional glass of wine when we go out. And she’s one of those folks who immediately turns red, so the kids know when she’s had a drink.

One day, my son’s class was having a “publishing” party, where parents were invited to see some of the writing projects the kids had completed. My wife was running a bit late, so when she arrived, she was a bit flushed and red in the face from speed-walking the last few blocks.

Our son, upon seeing her, in front of the whole class of students, parents, and the teacher, exclaimed in his super-loud voice (note that this was ~8:45am) “Mommy! Have you been drinking again?!”

All of us have an outspoken little first grader in our heads too. Who talks to us all day long – often, in an oversimplified and overgeneralized kind of way.

Like on those days when you’re struggling with a new piece, when the voice says “It’s no use.” Or “I can’t do this.”

Or maybe you’re subbing with an orchestra, and get a look from the conductor. Which prompts the voice to say “I don’t belong here.” Or “The conductor doesn’t like me.”

Anything I’ve ever read regarding confidence, has stressed the importance of positive self-talk. And in turn, how repetition is the key to getting these new thoughts to stick.

But while the value of repetition certainly makes intuitive sense, is repetition really that meaningful a factor in the confidence equation? Or is it just one of those things that people say?

Trivia time!

A study conducted back in the 70’s provides some intriguing clues.

Forty college students listened to a list of 60 trivia-like statements on three separate sessions, and were asked to rate each statement on a 7-point scale (where 1=definitely untrue, 4=uncertain, 5=possibly true, 6=probably true, 7=definitely true).

Examples include:

  • The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1947.
  • French horn players get cash bonuses to stay in the U.S. Army.
  • About 1.6 billion items of litter are tossed away each year on California public lands.
  • Tulane defeated Columbia in the first Sugar Bowl Game.
  • Lithium is the lightest of all metals.
  • The capybara is the largest of the marsupials.
  • The largest museum in the world is the Louvre in Paris.
  • Australia is approximately equal in area to the continental United States.
Click here for answer key
False, True, True, False, True, False, False, True

The statements were designed to be plausible, but not likely something the average student would know for certain. And while most of the 60 statements heard during each session were unique to that session, 20 of the statements were repeated in each of the three sessions.

Why the repetition?

What did people do before Google?

Well, nowadays, when we hear something like “the average human loses 60-100 hairs per day,” we turn to Google to see if it’s true or not.

But how did we decide if something was true or not back in the pre-Google days – when all we had was our brains?

The researchers suspected that frequency was one of the tools that our brain used to make decisions about a statement’s validity.

As in, the more times you hear that swimming after eating increases the risk of cramps and drowning, the more truthful that begins to seem. Even if it’s actually just a myth.

Repetition = familiarity = plausibility

Indeed, when the researchers compared the validity ratings of the repeated items vs. the non-repeated items, there was a significant shift in perceived truthiness over time.

The students’ ratings of the non-repeated trivia statements did not change much from one session to the next, with an average validity rating of 4.25 in session one, 4.22 in session two, and 4.16 in session three.

But when it came to the repeated statements, which the students were exposed to multiple times, their plausibility ratings increased from one session to the next. Increasing from 4.35 in session one, to 4.67 in session two, and all the way up to 4.74 in session three.

In other words, each time the students heard these statements, their plausibility increased, and the students became more and more certain that they were true. Even if the statements were actually false!

It seems that our brain sometimes confuses familiarity with truthfulness. In that the more times we hear a statement, the more familiar it becomes. And the more familiar it becomes, the more plausible it seems, relative to something we haven’t heard very often. Regardless of what’s actually true.

Takeaways

There’s certainly much more to the confidence equation than repetition alone, but I do think it’s important to keep tabs on that roguish first grader in our head.

Because much of what he/she says has the ring of truth, and often feels plausible. Like when you find yourself struggling with counterpoint and conclude that you suck at composition. Or fail to advance at several auditions in a row and start to tell yourself that you’re not cut out for an orchestral career.

Sure, you may have much to learn about composition, the audition process, and more, but things are almost never as black and white (and hopeless) as your defeatist first grader would have you believe.

Take, for instance, that scenario where you’re subbing in an orchestra and get a look from the conductor. Your inner pessimist may say “I don’t belong here.” But the truth is probably more nuanced, like “I don’t feel like I belong here, but then again, I’ve risen to the occasion before in challenging new situations like this. What do I need to work on before the next rehearsal, so that I can come in feeling more prepared, and more comfortable demonstrating what I’m capable of?”

The idea, is to take what your first grader says, and expand it into a more solution-focused action plan.

Learners vs. non-learners

Because as sociologist Benjamin Barber says in the book Mindset, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and non-learners.”

And while “I don’t belong here” points us in the direction of quitting, which creates a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy where failure becomes inevitable, the latter perspective focuses on learning and growth. Where we may eventually discover that we’re much more capable sight-readers and composers and auditioners than we initially thought.

After besides, I think if there’s a universal lesson to be learned from music, it’s that we’re all learners, whether we’ve been playing for 5 years or 50!

Additional resources

Carol Dweck on “The power of yet” @TED.

More on the illusory truth effect and other mental phenomena with Daniel Kahneman @The Motley Fool