Weekly Reads: The Expectation Effect

“What we feel and think will determine what we experience, which will in turn influence what we feel and what we think, in a never-ending cycle.” 

― David Robson, “The Expectation Effect”

“The Expectation Effect,” by David Robson, challenges the notion that our expectations do not translate into results. Rather, it makes the case that our expectations play an active role in forming our realities. It explores the extent to which self-fulfilling prophecies shape lives and draws on some of the most recent science available to back it up. 

The connection between our minds, bodies and outcomes is stronger than professionals previously believed. However, as technology gets more and more advanced, we are able to better study our bodies and how it reacts to our mindset. The book offers helpful methods to train your brain into positive patterns and adopt better mindsets while being realistic about limitations. 

David Robson dips into placebo science to provide examples of how our expectations shape our reality. The benefits of placebos are not just a psychological trick: the brain can release opioids when it believes that we are receiving opioids, causing very real pain relief. Recent studies show that placebos can work even if the patient knows they’re taking a placebo, and patients can similarly experience “nocebo effects,” which are drug side effects like nausea, dizziness or rashes, even if they’re just taking simple sugar pills.

An especially important part of the book for Bellevue College students is when David Robson talks about mental tasks. He argues, and the science seems to agree, that the mental exhaustion we feel after completing a task is real, but only because we expect it to be. We do not have a finite amount of energy throughout the day. Rather, our brains attempt to ration our resources based on our expectations of how difficult the day is going to be. That’s why challenging tasks that we enjoy seem energizing, while challenging tasks we do not enjoy seem draining and tedious. Our mental capacities are higher than perhaps we previously believed, and reframing your expectations can help you power through challenging tasks like studying for or taking finals. 

Anxiety before an exam is characterized by sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat and is generally seen as a negative thing, as an obstacle to getting a good score. However, this stress response is adaptive in nature. The heart beats more and pumps more oxygen and glucose to the brain, helping you think more clearly. The cortisol released from stress, in moderate levels, can help you stay mentally alert and at your peak. This is an example brought up in the book and one of many examples showing how reframing a situation can change it. Trying to calm down and panicking about over-stressing can cause more stress and anxiety at unhelpful levels and possibly cause lower scores on an exam, as opposed to understanding and using that increased clarity.