505: Capability

A Thousand Things to Talk About
505: Capability

What have you been told that you aren’t capable of? Did you do it anyway?

Full episode script

Our brains are great at taking suggestion. Our brains are even better at paying attention to what we’re told that we can’t or shouldn’t do. As Susan Ford-Collins wrote for the American Management Association,

we unconsciously remove the not so we can understand what we’re sensing. So Don’t play with matches immediately becomes do play with matches in our brain.

If you don’t give an alternative action – such as DO play with stuffed caterpillars – then your brain focuses on that thing you were told not to do.


This is because of what’s known as rebound effect — an effect made famous by the study led by Daniel Wegner, where people were told not to think about a white bear. In five minutes after being told this and being asked to talk out loud, on average, it appeared in study subjects’ thoughts every minute, and most people accidentally uttered “white bear” out loud once or twice.


In other words, being told a negative is sometimes a great way to get your brain to focus on something. But that doesn’t mean that being told you’re not capable of something is always a good thing. As one study in 2012 found about how parents communicate with children, quote:

“Discouraging responses were perceived as being as potent as praising responses and more potent than encouraging responses.”


And, on a much more serious note, someone telling you over and over that you are not capable or not good enough to do something can be a part of the cycle of power and control that characterizes abusive relationships — and can have lasting impacts.


It’s a very tough mix between what you are told and what you can do. It’s one of those areas where, more often than not, I return to this quote by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow:

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization. This term, first coined by Kurt Goldstein, is being used in this paper in a much more specific and limited fashion. It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.