We Get What We Expect to Get

In 1979, Dr. Helen Langer of Harvard conducted the now famous experiment with men in their late seventies and early eighties who were languishing in a nursing home [1]. Langer observed that the men were being treated as physically and mentally inept by nursing home staff and even family members. But Langer theorized that the men’s decline might not actually be an inevitable consequence of old age but due to the men internalizing the low expectation of others. To test her theory, Langer took the men on a one-week retreat where they could revisit a time when they were strong, vital and intelligent. She accomplished this makeover by turning the environment at the retreat house into what it would have looked like two decades prior in 1959.

The men wore clothes that were fashionable in 1959, ate the food they ate then, carried photo IDs of how they looked in that year, and were encouraged to behave as they had twenty years before. The men were also given newspapers and magazines from 1959 to read, shown films and television programs popular that year, and even the parking lot was staged with automobiles from the 1950’s. Langer thought that all this staging would generate a kind of placebo effect, tricking the men into believing they were younger, which, biologically, would establish the mind-body connection that would make them younger.

The results were astonishing. Compared to the control group of of other elders who went on an ordinary retreat, the “time traveling” men showed improvements in joint flexibility and manual dexterity. Their arthritis began to retreat, blood pressure dropped, and their IQ’s improved. Some of the men who previously couldn’t bend over to tie their shoe were tossing a football around as they waited for the bus that would take them back to the low expectation world in the nursing home.

Langer’s experiment was one the first studies to prove that mind over matter is real. Science now knows that our expectations mobilize vast inner resources and directs those resources toward fulfilling a desired outcome. Irving Kirsch of Harvard Medical School and Maryanne Garry of Victoria University teamed up to survey all the studies on the power of expectation[2] and the body of evidence they found shows that once we anticipate that a desired outcome could happen, good or bad, we set in motion a chain of thoughts, attitudes, and actions that work together to actually make it happen. It is now being called the Expectancy Effect.

“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.” [3]

Just imagine the level of success an organization could achieve if it harnessed this power. Think of your own life in terms of tapping your children’s potential, improving your health, or building your financial security. Happily, mobilizing the Expectancy Effect to one’s advantage is simpler than you might think. I describe how to do it in Chapter 13 of my book The End of Stress.

References

1.      Ellen J. Langer, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility(New York: Random House, 2009), 5–12.

2.      R. B. Michael, M. Garry, and I. Kirsch, “Suggestion, Cognition, and Behavior, “Current Directions in Psychological Science 21, no. 3 (2012): 151–56.

3.      The Power of Suggestion: What We Expect Influences Our Behavior, for Better or Worse,” News, Association for Psychological Science, June 6, 2012