The Bannister Effect: Breaking Down the Psychological Wall

The beliefs you have about the world, how it works, and your own potential can limit you. Discover the Bannister effect: an invitation to question what you think is impossible.
The Bannister Effect: Breaking Down the Psychological Wall
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 08 February, 2023

From the day you were born, you began to identify the laws that govern the world. For example, you started to understand that birds can fly but dogs can’t, that water can turn to ice, or that certain products if ingested, can be harmful. However, although this knowledge is crucial for you to function in your environment, some of these beliefs can be limiting. In fact, it’s only by getting rid of them that you manage to move forward. This exemplifies the Bannister effect.

If you take a look at the history of humanity, you’ll see that it’s inventors and visionaries who’ve led us to where we are today. Those people who were capable of seeing beyond the established, who were bold enough to imagine a different reality, and who made possible what, up until then, seemed impossible.

Technological advances, disease cures, new (more comfortable and healthy) ways of living… The contributions of these talents are diverse and innumerable. That said, as we mentioned earlier, they all have something in common. They managed to break through the psychological wall.

man thinking
Limiting beliefs can impede our personal and professional advancement.

The Bannister effect

The name of this phenomenon derives from the story of the British athlete, Roger Bannister. He was the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. Until 1954, the year Bannister achieved this feat, it seemed unattainable. Indeed, numerous runners at the time tried to achieve it but repeatedly failed. As a matter of fact, it was believed, not only by athletes and the press but also scientists, that it was a feat that was physiologically impossible.

The most surprising thing was, not that this British runner achieved it, but that, after him, many others did as well. Somehow, the psychological wall had been broken down and the world was open to the setting of new times and records. What for years had been outlined as unimaginable now had become real and accessible. This prompts us to ask: how many of our limitations are mental?

Today, we find it completely natural that there’s an appliance to wash our clothes automatically. Or, that it’s possible to work remotely for a company whose headquarters are located at the other end of the world. We watch planes fly overhead and take medicines that eradicate once-deadly diseases. In fact, so many things that are now part of our every day were, previously, seen as completely unrealistic visions.

Therefore, the Bannister effect can be defined as the cognitive phenomenon that occurs when an individual demonstrates that what was believed to be impossible is possible, thus opening the way for others to create and achieve it.

The Bannister effect in your own life

This historical achievement can also help you to advance in a personal capacity if you extract some of its teachings and apply them in your own life. Especially if, up until now, you’ve been governed by what you believed to be true and what you heard and saw in your environment. This will have meant you’ve limited yourself in achieving what you really want.

A call for innovation

The Bannister effect invites you to question the established. It urges you to see beyond the conventional, develop lateral and divergent thinking, and open yourself up to new realities and ways of behaving.

For instance, when faced with a particular problem, project, or task, don’t look for answers in what you already know. Instead, consider new and different possibilities.

However, it’s not easy to achieve. That’s because, for your brain, it’s natural, comfortable, and effective to refer to previous information when facing new situations. It’s known as heuristics. It consists of certain mental shortcuts that you use to solve problems or make decisions automatically, following the easiest and most well-known ways of thinking.

Therefore, if you want a change, advance or improvement, you have to overcome those resistances and mental limits and start to think ‘outside the box’.

Become inspired by those who’ve already achieved their dreams

We won’t all become great inventors and visionaries who’ll transform and change the world, and that’s okay. However, if you have a project or vision for yourself that seems somewhat far-fetched or inaccessible, the best thing you can do is be inspired by those who’ve already achieved the same.

If you grew up in a really traditional family, in a strict and conventional environment in which all your steps in life were marked out in advance, you probably won’t have references for the different future that you’re dreaming of for yourself. For this reason, your mission is to look for figures who’ve already followed the path you want to choose and be guided by them.

In your closest environment, your ideals may seem unrealistic or even outright impossible. That said, in other areas, they could already be a reality.

brothers talking
It’s highly recommended that you look for references to help you break down your psychological wall, just as Bannister did.

Persevere and use the resources at your disposal

Finally, remember that, while motivation and confidence are important, there are also other essential elements. Of course, you need to believe that what you want is possible. But it’s also important that you take the necessary action. In other words, you must prepare yourself and seek and use all the resources at your disposal to achieve your purpose. Above all, you must persevere.

The Bannister effect wasn’t produced solely by faith, but also by discipline. To run that mile in record time, the Briton needed preparation, support and practice. Make sure you don’t neglect this aspect.

You need to break down your own mental limits. When faced with a work project or a personal goal, innovation and conviction can make a difference. Always bear in mind that numerous things that exist today seemed impossible at some point and it was someone’s vision that made them real. Be daring, and become a visionary in your own life.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.