We Get What We Expect to Get ~ Part 1

Belief Creates the Actual Fact in Nearly Everything

Why it works

Why it works

Wishing on a star, rubbing a rabbit’s foot, crossing your fingers, or knocking on wood, all have one thing in common—the power of suggestion. The magic you imagine in the bones and fur of the rabbit’s foot makes you feel lucky and hopeful, which invites into your mind the anticipation that an outcome you desire could actually happen. The scientific evidence suggests that your anticipation mobilizes vast inner resources and directs those resources toward fulfilling your desire. Irving Kirsch of Harvard Medical School and Maryanne Garry of Victoria University of Wellington teamed up to review the most recent and intriguing effects of the power of suggestion on cognition and behavior.[1] The evidence shows that once you anticipate that a desired outcome could happen, you set in motion a chain of thoughts and actions that work together to actually make it happen. “The effects of suggestion,” Dr. Garry states, “are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think. If we can harness the power of suggestion,” Garry concludes, “we can improve people’s lives.”[2] Learning to tap this power moves into the higher stages of human potential, and the good news is that tapping this potential couldn’t be simpler (I’ll show you one approach at the end of the article).

The power of suggestion appears to be at the center of why some people succeed at school, business, or athletics while others fail, and why some people’s illness or pain resolves and others’ gets worse. Believing you are limited or blocked in some way drives the limitation. The great martial artist Bruce Lee said, “There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must go beyond them.[3] Our very thoughts are capable of extending mental and physical limits we tend to accept. It appears that the limits we perceive are not necessarily set by nature, but by our own mental attitude.

Most of what we know about the power of suggestions comes from the placebo effect, which describes real psychological and physiological changes that occur when the mind has been convinced to expect a therapeutic effect from a substance that is inert. In itself, the placebo does nothing; it’s the mind that generates the beneficial effect. While much of the research on the placebo effect has focused on alleviating pain, there is growing evidence that the placebo effect is multi-dimensional.  One such study relates to prospective memory. Prospective memory is how the brain remembers details or events that are to occur in the future. It gets us to appointments on time, helps us pay our bills when they are due, enables us to follow instructions, anticipates the next steps in a plan, and reminds us to take medication on time. Chronic stress debilitates prospective memory and researchers wanted to see if it was possible to enhance memory with a placebo.[4] They convinced subjects that a placebo they’d been given was a powerful “smart drug” that improved cognitive function and memory. In truth, the so-called smart drug was nothing more than a vitamin C drink. One group received the placebo and one group was given nothing at all. Then the researchers put both groups through a high-effort prospective memory task. Prospective memory improved in the group that had ingested the placebo, while the group that didn’t receive the placebo showed no improvement.

Perhaps nothing has turned our limited view of human potential on its head more than the research of Ellen Langer of Harvard University. Her research validates what William James, the father of American psychology, concluded about the power of belief more than a hundred years ago. James concluded that we can change anything if we believe we can; that belief creates the actual fact.[5] Langer’s most famous study showed this holds true even with the aging process. Our mental attitude can turn back the hands of Time, reversing the effects of aging. In 1979, Langer conducted an experiment with men in their late seventies, early eighties, who were languishing in nursing homes.[6] She took the men out of the nursing homes and to a retreat center where the men were asked to mentally put themselves back in time twenty years, to 1959. They wore clothes that were fashionable in 1959, ate the food they ate then, carried photo IDs of how they looked, read newspapers and magazines, and watched films, television programs, and discussed sporting events, all from that year. Their assignment was not merely to reminisce about bygone days,” Langer said, “but to make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years before.”

The elders did just that. “They put their mind in an earlier time,” Langer said, “and their bodies went along for the ride.”[7]  The results were astonishing. Langer’s time travelers showed greater improvements in blood pressure, joint flexibility and manual dexterity, and incredibly, their arthritis began to retreat. These were men who previously couldn’t bend over far enough to tie their own shoes, but their prowess improved so much that at one point they engaged in a touch-football game. Their IQs even improved and when they returned to real time, their families were astounded at how much younger they looked. The results defied belief. “It sounded like Lourdes,” Langer said.[8]  The mind can become Lourdes, or it can become a bed on a geriatric ward. Langer’s study shows that even aging is nothing but a mindset.

… Continue on to Part 2 of this article


[1] R. B. Michael, M. Garry, and I. Kirsch, Suggestion, Cognition, and Behavior, Current Directions in Psychological Science 21, no. 3 (2012): 151–56.
[2] The Power of Suggestion: What We Expect Influences Our Behavior, for Better or Worse, News, Association for Psychological Science, June 6, 2012
[3] Robert Pagliarini, Meet Bruce Lee, Personal Growth Guru, CBS/MoneyWatch, August 27, 2012,  http://www.cbsnews.com/news/meet-bruce-lee-personal-growth-guru/
[4] Sophie Parker et al., A Sham Drug Improves a Demanding Prospective Memory Task, Memory, 19, no. 6 (August 2011): 606–12.
[5] William James, The Principles of Psychology, Volume 2, Macmillan, 1891, pgs. 288-297
[6] Ellen J. Langer, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (New York: Random House, 2009), 5–12. [
7] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/what-if-age-is-nothing-but-a-mind-set.html?_r=0
[8] Ibid