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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

The Expectation Effect: exploring the power of our mind

David Robson is a Cambridge mathematician by training, but has shifted his career towards an exploration of the human brain and body. His award-winning book The Expectation Effect has accomplished the difficult task of convincing science-oriented people that our minds have a real, powerful influence on the physical world around us. The power of belief, something that has long been dismissed in the scientific world as a form of pseudoscience, is backed by evidence as strong as other reputable drugs and treatments.

This concept isn’t new (you’ve likely heard of the closely related placebo effect), but the key to unlocking the benefit of the expectation effect isn’t just being aware of its existence. The true advantage comes when you buy into it fully, and convince yourself of the power of your own mind. This is what Robson does well, perhaps better than anyone before. The examples in his book are enough to convince even the most evidence-based scientists to take this seriously. So without further ado, let's dive into those examples so we can hopefully convince you, too.

The placebo effect is perhaps the most well-known example of an expectation effect: when you think you’re taking a strong pain medicine, you’ll actually experience relief of your pain — even if the “medicine” you were given was a sham. This placebo effect works in the other direction as well. Statin drugs, a class of commonly prescribed cholesterol medications, somehow developed the reputation of being laden with side effects. When this was actually studied, however, 13.3% of people had to stop their medication due to side effects. The crazy part is that 13.9% of people on placebo also had to stop their “medication” due to side effects. Your mind has the power to be its own painkiller, and it also has the power to create side effects from a sugar pill.

There are actually countless examples of expectation effects having a real impact on physiology, but the impact they have on our lives overall is even more impressive. People who think they sleep poorly have more daytime fatigue than people who feel like they sleep well, even if their measured sleep quality is identical. There was even a study which suggested that simply having positive thoughts about aging leads to an average lifespan increase of 7.5 years, even when controlled for a whole host of factors.

Now again, the difficult part isn’t becoming aware of the expectation effect, it’s actually finding ways to utilize it in your life. I certainly haven’t mastered this skill, but I do think I’ve “bought in” to the idea enough to create some real benefit. One way I apply this is through a persistent belief that I’m a healthy person, and equally persistent forgiveness for any minor hiccups along the way. This works in my favor in two ways. Firstly, my identity as a healthy person makes me determined to do what healthy people do: exercise often, eat well, and prioritize sleep. These things have become my norm and abandoning them would be the same as abandoning an integral part of myself. On the flip side, when I inevitably miss a workout or eat fast food, it doesn’t keep me up at night. My expectation is that because I’m a strong, healthy person, the occasional day off or cheat meal won’t knock me off track. 

While it’s easier said than done, the key is to simply utilize the expectation effect in your favor at every possible opportunity. Try to convince your brain that you slept well last night; that you’re an excellent public speaker; that you’re going to live to 100. While of course it’s important to actually put in the work, there’s strong evidence that simply holding these beliefs will get you part of the way there.


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