Playing the Imitation Game: Success through Modeling

Amanda would love to be more fit than she is. A trainer at her gym suggests a particular group class, but Amanda explains, “That won’t work for me; I’ve tried them before.” She goes on to tell herself, “I’m too out of shape and I’d probably struggle to keep up. The instructor won’t want me in her class—and she wouldn’t help me, anyway.”

Any friend of Amanda’s would probably encourage her to try the class just once—and wonder why Amanda’s sabotaging herself again, before she even gets started.

To a degree, Amanda’s brain is wired to do it. We use beliefs we develop over the course of our lives to give meaning to the world around us and to navigate through new experiences. Neurons communicate electrically and chemically as we go through a new experience, literally forging new connections in our brain. As psychologist Donald Hebb explains, “neurons that fire together wire together.”

These neural networks become bigger and stronger the more frequently they’re stimulated and the more emotional relevance is attached to the triggering event. As they get bigger and stronger, these neural networks profoundly affect our behavior and our views, even leading to self-destructive thoughts like Amanda’s.


One way to retrain our thinking is the technique of modeling. Identify someone who has an attribute you admire and could benefit from having yourself. It could be someone you know personally, but you can choose anyone—even a celebrity. For just a week, try imitating that one attribute as if you completely possessed it, or imagine that you’ve been cast to play the role of someone who has it.

Then work through these steps:

  1. Be conscious of your thinking. Notice when you come up with an “automatic negative thought.”
    2. Check that thought against your model. Ask yourself, “Is this the type of thought that my role model would have?”
    3. Replace the thought with something more positive. Ask yourself, “What’s my role model likely to be thinking?
    4. Take responsibility for your thought. Ask yourself, “What other thought could I choose to have?” Try acting in a way that’s aligned with the thought.
    5. Tell someone supportive about the role model or persona you’re adopting for the week. Choose someone who cares about you and can encourage you, and hold you accountable to your model.

With practice, it gets easier to observe negative thoughts, ask whether there’s any proof that they’re true or what would happen if the opposite were true – and replace negative ideas with more constructive ones.

Try this technique for a week and tell us what happens, on Twitter (@24hourfitness, #24Life).


Psychologist Aaron T. Beck pioneered the concept of “Automatic Negative Thoughts” in the late 1960s. Any of these examples sound familiar?

Global generalizations: Amanda has generalized her concern about keeping up with the class into a rationale that the instructor won’t want her there or help her.

Mental Filter: Jason started an exercise program a month ago. He’s been on time for every session, but today he got stuck in traffic and is ten minutes late. He tells himself, “I’m just not disciplined; no wonder I always fail.”

Disqualification: Angie has been training for three months. When a co-worker tells her how well she looks, Angie explains it away by saying, “Oh it’s the outfit I’m wearing. I bought it to hide how fat I am.”

Magnification: Daniel gave a great presentation at work, but didn’t know the answer to one question. When his boss compliments him, he says, “I didn’t do so well. I need to work harder—I really blew it.”

Faulty Reasoning: Sarah’s just completed a health assessment and is reviewing all the dietary changes she needs to make and how much more she’ll need to work out. She feels overwhelmed; it’s just hopeless and she’s bound to fail. Why even try?

Labeling: Heather cheated on her diet and had a slice of birthday cake. Disgusted with herself, she tells herself that she is just fat and lazy.

Personalization: Rachel’s date is stuck in traffic, and his cell phone battery is dead. Rachel tells herself he must be late because she’s not that much of a catch.