Rational magic

The scientific understanding of the Expectation Effect

The “expectation effect” is not about notions of magical magnetism, it is about a scientific understanding that what you expect has real, tangible power to shape your world.

The way you think about the world profoundly shapes the way you navigate it. Your attitudes, beliefs and expectations influence each other to determine how you see the world, yourself and others. These elements contribute to what you think, what you feel and how you behave. So much so, according to the science, that they impact every aspect of your physical and mental health and the overall quality of your life.

The mind–body connection is the link between your beliefs and your physical health, and while the mechanisms involved have been a mystery we now know and understand a lot more than we once did. With this understanding comes the opportunity to harness the rational magic that exists within us all.

Research into the mind–body connection suggests that your beliefs and attitudes influence your behaviour and your physiology, contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy that science writer David Robson calls the expectation effect. In his book The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, Robson outlines research that provides profound evidence that describes, among other phenomena, how people who think they are particularly prone to cardiovascular disease are four times as likely to die from cardiac arrest, and how your beliefs about ageing can either increase or decrease your lifespan.

The expectation effect makes it clear that what you think will happen changes what does happen, but this is in no way about magical thinking. Instead, the expectation effect can help you to rethink your beliefs to better influence outcomes around your health, wellbeing and opportunities for success. Indeed, when you learn how to reset your expectations research has found that your health, happiness and productivity can vastly improve.

While the idea of the way in which positive and negative thinking impacts your wellbeing has long been investigated, the idea of how your expectations influence your wellbeing to the point of altering your very physiology comes down to the meanings you assign to events and the specific beliefs you hold about what will happen to you. In his book, Robson describes the brain as a “prediction machine”, which refers to the way your brain often takes shortcuts, searching for patterns in your environment as an energy-saver, given the extraordinary amount of information it receives every second of the day.

To support this process, your beliefs and expectations help the brain to condense this information, enabling it to quickly categorise and evaluate data and come to conclusions about what you should think, feel and do at any given time. Unfortunately, prediction is not always accurate and can therefore work for you or against you, depending on the correctness of the predictions made and the beliefs and expectations you have that feed them.

What expectations are and where they’re from

An expectation is an anticipated belief around something that may take place in the future. They can be negative or positive and they exist around people, places and things. You have expectations around yourself, others and the world, and they arise through a combination of temperament, attitudes, social conditioning, cultural norms and life experiences.

Your expectations influence what you pay attention to in any given moment and how you interpret events and your interactions with others, as well as the explanations you provide for your own and others’ behaviour or events that occur. As such, when you expect a particular outcome in a situation, you subconsciously change your behaviour to better achieve the outcome you expect, whether this is good for you or not.

The power of beliefs

Beliefs form the foundations of your expectations. They can be helpful or unhelpful; they can keep you stuck or they can set you free to explore your limitations and your capabilities. They have a profound influence on the way you approach the world and the judgements you make about others, yourself and how the world should work. While there are many kinds of beliefs that you can have — global and specific, personal, cultural and religious for example — there are generally two different ways your beliefs are formed.

The first is via self-generated beliefs. These are the beliefs you create yourself using deduction, exploration and curiosity, and, along with your personal experiences, they help to formulate your personal expectations of the world.

Externally generated beliefs, on the other hand, come from others: individuals, organisations, religious or scientific leaders, cultural norms and society. External beliefs can provide a sense of certainty in the areas of your life where you lack expertise, but they can also form when you don’t have the motivation or capacity to examine the issue yourself.

Beliefs in all their dimensions directly influence what you expect from yourself and others, as well as situations as they arise. While these expectations may seem entirely reasonable and logical, if not always positive, their influence on your very DNA is becoming much clearer and the control that you can exert to form more useful beliefs more understood.

So how do your expectations impact your existence to the point of life and death, and how do you learn to change your expectations for the better?

Physical health

According to Robson, if you have positive expectations about illness and disease or the drugs you are prescribed, physiological changes that make you feel better can be produced. Even when you are given a placebo, Robson says, “physiological changes to blood circulation, hormone balance, and immunological responses” in your body are triggered through your expectations and belief.

The same, his work has found, is true for the nocebo effect, which occurs when you have negative expectations about an illness or drugs. Research has found that the nocebo effect can generate measurable physiological changes, including significant shifts in your hormones and neurotransmitters, potentially stalling your ability to heal.

It is a process, suggests Robson, that may explain why some people appear to self-heal while others with similar conditions can take unexpected turns for the worse. Indeed, research studies has found that in some cases, simply thinking about having symptoms of a disease can cause you to suffer from it, and that people may experience “death by expectation” where negative beliefs appear to disturb the body’s vital functions, causing them to collapse.

Activating the expectation effect for illness

One of the primary factors identified in this context is that of catastrophic thinking. Catastrophic thinking, also known as catastrophising, is irrational thinking that can cause you to assume that bad outcomes are inevitable. Research on teaching patients to reframe or reappraise their symptoms has demonstrated significant improvements in patient wellbeing. Indeed, changing the way you interpret your medical experiences and the meanings you assign to them has been found to minimise discomfort in the long run.

Reappraisal, which involves more realistic thinking, can be assisted by understanding the mechanisms causing your discomfort, with research finding reductions in the chronic pain of between 30 and 70 per cent in those who have learned how to reappraise it. While the expectation effect cannot make illness or injury disappear, it can help you to manage it better for an improved quality of life and/or a quicker recovery.

Intelligence

The impact of your thoughts and self-limiting beliefs on intellectual performance has long been investigated within educational psychology, with self-expectation around your ability to succeed dependent on your mindset. Through her work Dr Carol Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs you have about learning and intelligence and how each impacts your success and academic growth.

With a growth mindset, individuals believe they can get smarter because they understand that effort makes them more effective. As such, they put in extra time and effort, which leads to higher achievement. Those with a fixed mindset, however, believe their abilities are fixed traits and therefore cannot be changed, so they cannot influence their innate level of intelligence and the level of success they can hope to achieve. Essentially, your beliefs either put the brakes on your opportunities in life or allow you to test your limits.

Activating the expectation effect for intelligence

When it comes to making yourself smarter or more creative, the research Robson presents in his book suggests that when you rethink difficulties in learning a new skill or information as evidence of learning you are more likely to persevere rather than give up. Reminding yourself that frustration is beneficial in the process of learning can reduce feelings of defeat and helplessness and help you to push through. Indeed, his book provides clear evidence that you can raise your IQ, increase memory and boost creativity by how you think about these qualities and the processes required to achieve them.

Fitness

Most of us would probably agree that one of the major reasons we fail to sustain exercise or reach our fitness goals is that we don’t really believe we can. Yet the way you think about exercise and your attitude towards it can determine whether you can improve your fitness levels and enjoyment of the process at the same time.

For example, if you interpret fatigue as a lack of fitness, or muscle soreness as a sign you aren’t ever going to become strong, you will most likely give up believing fitness or strength gains are possible for you. Yet research has found that when you reinterpret these signals as beneficial and evidence that you are becoming fitter, your confidence, enjoyment and resolve increase.

Activating the expectation effect for fitness

One of the ways we can change your expectations around your fitness, even as a casual exerciser, is to use visualisation. Research has found that when you visualise yourself performing an exercise or participating in an activity, and focus on how it will feel, and the resulting sense of strength and accomplishment, you actually perform better in real life.

Mental health

Your mental health is intrinsically linked to the way you think and the way you interpret the world, so when your beliefs about how you should think and feel and your beliefs about how things should be are not in alignment you can experience psychological distress. For example, stress has long been touted as a bad thing, yet the science finds the opposite.

Stress in and of itself is a useful tool driving you to action. Indeed, when it comes to performance, a certain amount of the jitters gets you ready to race or play. When you believe and expect stress to be debilitating, however, symptoms such as a racing heart and a queasy stomach can become incapacitating, rather than fuel for improved performance or an opportunity for personal growth.

Activating the expectation effect for good mental health

When you reframe stress as a performance enhancer, a challenge to be met and
a normal bodily response, the research has found that you can become more persistent, more creative, better able to proactively problem-solve and more willing to access strategies to manage your mental health.

Additionally, research has shown that when you seek information that fully explains what is physiologically going on with your mental health issue and when you learn about the explicit ways in which treatment and management strategies work, you gain a better sense of control and reduced symptomology.

Ageing

In her book Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Ageing Determine How Long and Well You Live, Dr Becca Levy examined whether beliefs about ageing impact your health and longevity. She found that many health problems we formerly considered to be entirely due to the ageing process, like memory and hearing loss, are heavily influenced by the negative age beliefs that dominate certain cultures.

In contrast to these beliefs, research has shown that those of us with more positive beliefs about ageing reduce our risk for developing dementias like Alzheimer’s, even if we have a genetic predisposition to them. As well, memory and brain health can and do get better as you age, contrary to popular belief that it inevitably fades.

In his book, Robson talks about how beliefs about the ageing process may be as important for your long-term wellbeing as your actual chronological age. This is, in part, due to how your expectations affect your cells’ biological clock by turning specific genes on and off increasing inflammation and illness.

Activating the expectation effect for good ageing

Based on the research, Robson suggests that to avoid chronic inflammation and other ageing conditions you need to change the way you view ageing by shrugging off ageing stereotypes, learning new skills and holding on to feeling young through the pursuit of your passions, physical activity and relationships.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence available that confirms that not only do your expectations shape and bend your reality, but they can also change your life, emotionally and physically. In short, what is expected shapes what happens, through the subconscious influence your expectations have on your behaviours. When you change your mindset then, you can dramatically change your life.

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies is a freelance writer and teacher. She has a background in psychology and is currently working in education in the wellbeing sector.

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