This blog is about the power of expectation. Whenever I speak to clients, whether by phone or face to face I am very careful with the language I use. The skilful use of language combined with utilisation of the client’s unique resources and world view creates an environment and context for change. Setting up positive expectation helps to create momentum for positive change from the outset. The power of expectation is not a new phenomenon, it has been studied for decades and variably described as ‘Placebo’, ‘Self-fulfilling prophesy’, ‘Expectation Assimilation’ and ‘Confirmation Bias’ – in essence you get what you expect.
This phenomenon occurs in many environments, it’s evident in social behaviour, education achievement and even around our experience of food and drink. There has been a lot of research into feeding the armed forces – it’s very important for men and women in the forces to eat well, unfortunately the context they find themselves in is often not conducive to a good appetite!! Researchers therefore have studied how to ‘trick’ them into eating more using different packaging, scented packaging, different names, visual illusions as to portion size and so on. In 2004 Brian Wansink et al told some soldiers they wanted them to rate a new Strawberry Yoghurt they had developed. They had the soldiers eat in complete darkness but instead gave them all Chocolate Yoghurt – more than 50% of the participants subsequently described the yoghurt as having a great strawberry taste – the mere expectation of strawberry yoghurt , and the absence of other cues, influenced the taste experience.
Dr Milton Erickson was fascinated by this area. He once undertook a study where he had three groups of students, Group A, B and C and he spoke to each group individually. He told Group A they would soon go into a room one by one and there would be another student sitting in the room. After a while, a third person would come into the room and give them 50cents (the research was done in the 1950’s!). He told group B the same, only this time he said they would be given $1. He then told the members of Group C that they would go into a room and there would be two students sitting there, they were to give 50c to one student and $1 to the other – it was up to them to decide. No one was to speak while in the room.
At the end of the experiment 79% of group B students got there $1. When asked to explain, Dr Erickson simply said ‘they had a dollar expectancy’. Dr Erickson, realised, however, that in the therapeutic context it was equally as important for the therapist to have the same expectation!!!
When you have an expectation of a certain thing you rehearse the experience in your mind and body of receiving that thing. This can be positive or negative. The act of rehearsing, or vivifying the state or experience can be enough to bring it about – hence placebo etc. It strikes me that in our pharmaceutical driven western medicine industry this unique ability of our species is not well utilised. In fact medicine is saturated with cold, clinical, negative suggestion. How many of you have had a doctor say "we can ‘try’ you on this new drug"….’ or "try this therapy", etc. ‘Try’ implies failure – ‘I tried my best, but…..’, ‘I’ll give it a try, but…’, ‘Well as long as you tried hard’ and so on. Equally, we are told cold percentages of likelihood of cure, or partial amelioration, even timescales in which to expect it – all honest, research based and clinical but not necessarily conducive to actually bringing about the desired outcome.
So, why not pay attention to how you talk to yourself. What are the implied expectations in how you phrase things or in your self-talk as you approach a new task or challenge? Try changing them. Expect something different. And watch and see.