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More or Less: The World Is What You Make It
Understanding the Power of Our Unexamined Assumptions. Reviewing ‘The Expectation Effect’ by David Robson
Nobody likes discomfort. But what if I told you that discomfort could boost your performance? In research conducted by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, subjects performed better when prompted to think positively about discomfort compared to those given more neutral cues.
“Your goal is to push past your comfort zone,” Woolley and Fishbach informed those in the discomfort condition. What’s more, subjects were told “feeling uncomfortable is a sign that the exercise is working.”
One person who “has focus” moves around the room and acts at will while other players are frozen in place. The person who has focus can pass it to someone else after some duration, short or long. Most learning happens when people are holding focus, says Woolley, so the longer they hold it, the more they learn.
The whole point is to see who can manage the open-ended anxiety and awkwardness of performing the longest. Sounds like my worst nightmare. The more students risk by trying one shtick and then another, the greater the opportunity to learn from the experience.
What Woolley and Fishbach found in this and related research is that subjects who were cued to embrace discomfort were, in Brabaw’s words, “more motivated to continue whichever emotionally difficult task they were asked to do.”
The big takeaway: Your expectation of discomfort can have a determinative effect on the results you experience from that discomfort. Go back to the words in Woolley and Fishbach’s instruction: “feeling uncomfortable is a sign that the exercise is working.” Students were not only told they would experience discomfort; they were also told discomfort was positive, and that cue demonstrably changed the outcome.
The Power of Expectation
This finding echoes the broad thesis of science writer David Robson’s new book, The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change the World. Our experience of the world is shaped by our expectations of it.
While Robson’s subtitle sounds more self-helpy than the sort of book a science writer might usually tackle, there’s an interesting convergence at play. Positive thinking is not the cure to every ailment, but—as the Woolley and Fishbach studies show—research-backed evidence of the impact our mindset makes on day-to-day life continues to mount.
We’re probably all aware of the placebo effect—by which patients experience relief, even healing, after treatment with medically inert substances like sugar pills. If the person believes they are receiving help, they experience it as helpful. Weirdly, as Robson points out, they can even experience it as helpful if they’re aware the pills are only sugar. How? The best answer seems to be because they know the power of the placebo effect itself.
What Robson calls the expectation effect not only has the power to improve our experience, it can also diminish or degrade it. Scientists also speak of the nocebo effect; whereas placebo means, “I shall please,” nocebo translates as “I shall harm.” As Robson points out, pain reactions are often intensified by belief, not the sensation itself. That is, the expectation of pain actually worsens the experience. Negative anticipation of any sort can produce similar results.
This expectation effect is the product of our brain’s prediction mechanism. The world is far too vast, and information far too plentiful, for our brains to process; so, our senses take a sample of all the data and our brains fill in the gaps—what neuroscientists call predictions—and these predictions have an appreciable effect on our experience of reality.
Stuck? Try Reappraisal
In chapter after chapter, Robson demonstrates that beliefs about our health, smarts, stress, longevity, and more are all affected by our expectations. One example: Students prompted to think that anxiety experienced during an exam improved performance actually did better compared to students taking the test without the cue. “The average score of the control group was 706,” writes Robson, “while those who had learned to see anxiety as a source of energy received 770.”
Robson notes this kind of prompt is called reappraisal. It’s a way of reinterpreting the sensation of anxiety to produce a better outcome—same as the improv students reinterpreting their discomfort.
Could reappraisal work for other situations as well, say the impact of physical stress? Yes. Robson mentions a study in which two groups of participants took a test designed to provoke anxiety. Their response was measured by physical indicators such as heart rate. The control group was directed to ignore any negative feelings, while the other was encouraged to interpret those same feelings as beneficial. No surprise by this point, but the reappraisal exercise allowed the second group to perform better.
“Why does reappraisal have this power?” asks Robson before providing this answer:
For researchers like [University of Rochester psychologist Jeremy] Jamieson it all comes down to the brain’s predictions, as it weighs up our mental and physical resources against the demands of the task to plan the most appropriate response. If you see your anxiety as debilitating and performance reducing, you reinforce the expectation that you are already at a disadvantage and that you are going to fail—and the brain responds by preparing the body for danger and potential injury. But if you see the racing heartbeat as a sign of energy for an important and potentially rewarding event, you reaffirm the idea that you have everything you need to thrive. “The stress response, instead of becoming this thing to be avoided, actually becomes a resource,” said Jamieson.
Same sensation, different result—all because of our expectation. So how do we change those expectations?
Making a Change
Robson offers a handful of different methods at the end of each chapter, but it seems to me the simplest solution is to remember the core insight itself because awareness makes conscious choice possible. Knowing that negative expectations will likely sour our experiences can prompt us to choose something more useful when we catch ourselves entertaining negative assumptions or dour interpretations of events.
I can choose, for instance, to interpret fatigue and muscle pain when I exercise as gaining strength. I can likewise choose to interpret anxiety when making public presentations as the adrenaline surge I need to think fast and connect with my audience—similar to how the Second City students managed to leverage their discomfort for improved performance.
What if reappraisal feels hard in the moment? Robson recommends taking “an outside view,” that is, adopting a perspective beyond our current experience of whatever it is we’re feeling: stress, anxiety, frustration, and so on. “You can,” he says,
imagine looking back at your current event from some time in the future, months or years away. Or you can imagine that you are an observer, watching the situation unfold from outside your body. The technique I personally find most useful is to imagine that I am advising a friend in the same situation.
The most valuable insight from Robson’s thoroughly researched and well written book is this: We don’t have to take the world as we find it; we always, after all, find it filtered through our unexamined expectations. Instead, by examining our expectations we can opt for a more advantageous way of engaging the world we find.
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