The Psychology Behind Faking It

"Fake it till you make it" is just one of those sayings that everyone has heard about a million times. Or at least I know it was thrown at me from everyone when I was struggling with my confidence. Naive, young teenage me shrugged it all off - how is pretending gonna help me at all?!?! - and just continued her life as usual. Now after almost 3 years of studying Psychology I´ve realized that maybe shrugging it off was wrong. I could´ve build my confidence way easier because faking it actually works and here´s how!

What Is Faking It?

When talking about faking it we first need to assume that there´s something that you desire to have but don´t have it right now. We´re gonna call this thing "IT" for the moment. IT can be anything from the above mentioned confidence to a particular skill or certain achievement in your life. Faking IT therefore means acting like you already have the IT. Often such things are faked by looking at people who have IT and mimicking their behaviors. It´s important to distinguish this acting from faking your whole life/living a lie. Faking IT is simply acting like a better version of yourself that you hope to achieve in the future and are actively working towards. It doesn´t mean lying to people and it´s very important to note that you don´t hurt anyone or disguise yourself while faking IT.

From a psychological standpoint there are a lot of theories and studies that can prove that faking IT can actually work. I´m going to explain a few of these theories to you now.

Emotion Theory

Humans are generally very emotional beings. It´s our way of processing our experience in the world. This emotional processing obviously plays a big part in faking it too.

One of the oldest emotion theories is the James-Lange-Theory. It states that we experience emotions as a consequence of our bodily reactions to a certain event or stimulus. What that means is that our brains interpret the reaction of our body (e.g. heart racing, smiling) and conclude that we must feel a specific emotion because of this. Hence, we then feel said emotion. In very basic steps, you can imagine it like this:

I see a spider -> My heart starts racing, my hands get sweaty -> my brain notices the reaction & says I must feel fear -> I experience fear

In a more specific theory Laird proposed that certain facial muscle activity leads to the experience of emotion. In this Facial Feedback Theory the same thing happens as in the James-Lange-Theory but it is specific to your facial reaction.

Conclusion: This means that by behaving like you already have IT your brain will interpret your bodily reactions and conclude that you must already have IT. Hence, you will feel like you have IT. This will then make it easier for you to fake IT the next time until you don´t have to fake IT anymore.

Memory & Processing

In psychology we can´t talk about learning without mentioning memory and by faking IT you´re basically just learning how to achieve IT. Without going into too much detail about how your brain processes and saves certain information I want to show you how all of this affects faking IT as well.

For a very basic step in Processing Time & Fluency you need to know that our brains have a limited capacity for the information that we can process at any given time. That is why when you first try to solve a certain task it takes a lot more effort and time: all the new information needs to be processed individually and thoroughly first. But the more you repeat this task it gets easier and easier until you can do it without thinking. Our brains work faster with information they already now and with each time an information is processed again the brain gets faster. Also the brain learns that certain information belong together and can process them together as well.

One practice widely used in therapy for anxiety is Exposition to or confrontation with the feared situation/object. It´s one of the most effective therapy practices as it teaches your brain that whatever you fear will not harm you and it will relax your body and fear reaction. By constantly making a positive connection with the feared object your brain dissociates it with fear. However, it takes a lot of confrontations until your brain has finally learned this. Often when you go into a situation and fake IT you´ll get a positive reaction because nobody might notice that you are faking IT or because you feel better/more confident.

Conclusion: When you fake IT for the first time it will take a lot of effort but the more you do it the easier it will get until you don´t have to think about it anymore and therefore have achieved IT. The more you go into a situation and fake IT the quicker your brain learns to associate the situation with the positive effect and therefore you´ll learn IT quicker.

Social Theories

Chances are whatever IT is you´re faking it´ll either have to do with people or you´ll meet people while faking IT. That is why theories from social psychology are also really important in this process.

The self-fulfilling prophecy describes the phenomenon that when you strongly believe that something will happen you will change your behavior in the way that it will actually happen in the way you believed. This might sound a bit complicated but basically you are tricking yourself into a situation where what you believe will come true actually comes true. To say it in a simpler diagram.

I believe that I´ll meet a close friend -> subconsciously I will then hang around places where it´s likely that this friend will be too -> eventually I meet said friend

When you interact with people while faking IT it´s likely that you´ll receive some sort of Social Feedback from them. We often use such feedback to adapt our behavior; positive feedback makes us like our behavior more and we will show it more often whereas negative feedback signals that the behavior wasn´t fitting and therefore we´ll less likely show the same behavior again.

Conclusion: By faking IT you´re making yourself believe that you have IT and therefore you´ll behave like you have IT until you´ve achieved IT. Also getting positive feedback from the people around you (e.g. them complimenting you on IT) will make you feel more positive when faking IT and you´ll fake IT more often until you don´t have to fake IT anymore.

So the next time you find an IT that you desire, don´t be as naive as teenage me was and try faking IT!  However, as with almost all psychological theories these are not 100% perfect and there´s evidence for and against each theory. There is definitely not just one way that faking IT works; it might be a single theory or it might be a combination. It might even be different for every single person out there. What I want you to take away from this post nonetheless is that faking IT is not stupid and can actually help you achieve your IT!

Have you ever tried faking it? What was your experience? Can you apply any of the theories here to your experience?


  1. I've never heard anyone talk about the psychology behind faking it until you make it before, but this makes so much sense!

    Steph -

  2. Thank you for sharing this. The article is awesome.
    Love, Esther

  3. Just saw a ted talk about this today.
    It's awesome. Yes i have done this. I bluffed my way through things and it worked like a charm.
    Presented myself as confident when I wasn't sure I was that confident.
    It works.


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