Did you know, the same glass of wine “tastes better” if you pay more for it. Using MRI technology, researchers at the University of Bonn demonstrated that subjects perceived an identical drop of wine to be of better quality if they were told it cost more! Researchers call this the “Marketing Placebo Effect,” and it has been demonstrated consistently over the years.
The scientifically demonstrable fact that our expectations effect our perceptions is a fascinating phenomenon that is almost certainly not confined to the taste of wine, or marketing. It may effect our perception of reality. That is, our expectations about what we find in the world may impact what we actually perceive to exist, and how we act in the world. This “Reality Placebo Effect” likely impacts our self perceptions, our social perceptions, our social class perceptions, etc.
A personal anecdote brings the implications and power of this home. When my daughter was four she, like many children, had a speech delay. She went to see a speech pathologist, but after coming home, I could see something was wrong. Her performance at school dropped and she began to struggle with even simple intellectual tasks. Suspecting something had happened, I invited the speech pathologist over to my home for their next session so I could observe their interaction. What I saw horrified me; the speech path, through subtle gestures and negative facial expressions, was making my daughter feel stupid. I immediately fired the speech pathologist, but the damage was done. My four year old daughter, psychologically and emotionally undeveloped and completely at the mercy of this speech pathologist who was pouring her expectations into my daughter’s consciousness, absorbed the speech pathologist’s negative evaluation, with academically and emotionally disastrous results.
My daughter only saw the speech pathologist twice, one in private and once with me. but I struggled to repair the damage for over a decade , not only with her, constantly trying to bolster her self esteem, but also with her teachers, who drew remarkably inappropriate conclusions from the observations they were making. I vividly remember arguing with her grade one teacher about the cause of her spelling difficulties. Out of a list of ten words that we studied at home, she could never get more than one or two right on the exam at school. This despite the fact that she demonstrated perfect retention at home. The teacher tried to tell me this was ADD or some other kind of organic difficulty. I told her she had test anxiety because a former “teacher figure” had made her feel stupid. Now, because of that, she didn’t want to say anything or respond to anything out of fear of having some authority figure make her feel bad about herself by making some dirty face or dismissive comment.
Of course, the teacher didn’t believe me at first. Why should she? After all, I was just a typical parent, biased about my daughter and oblivious to the reality. However I persisted and after a considerable effort arguing with the teacher, she finally changed her strategy with my daughter. Instead of giving my daughter regular spelling tests, she gave her simpler word recognition tests. My daughter could easy recognize the words, she felt confident, and so she wasn’t afraid to respond. Not surprising, to me anyway, she got them all right. I still remember her grade one teacher expressing surprise that my daughter was in fact “processing information,” and didn’t have some kind of organic deficit. Long story short, the teacher administered word recognition tests for three more weeks after which she returned to administering regular class spelling tests. My daughter’s confidence in her self improved as a result and she began immediately to perform above average on regular spelling tests. This wasn’t the end of it, of course. The damage was done in an instant, but it took many more years to completely repair what a single unaware professional wrought in a single “therapeutic” session.
My daughter, who is now home schooled because I eventually got tired of all the abuse she was experiencing at school (that’s another story), is now a thriving artist who loves social sciences and art. But like I said, it was a lot of work. I worked constantly and diligently in close quarters with my children to undo the damage done to them at school.
The take away from this is simple and self-evident I feel. It is not only that our expectations impact how we perceive the quality of wine, our expectations, about our self and others, have profound, long term, potentially devastating consequences on our perception of self and reality, our experiences of that reality, our actions in that reality, how others see and treat us, and the sort of life that we develop as a result. My daughter developed performance anxieties which impacted her ability to act/perform. Teachers assumed (probably because of their own expectations), ADD or other organic deficits. The interaction of expectations (both of self and others) thus feed the growth of a pathological reality. Had I not stepped in, fired the speech pathologist, and fought with her teachers, who knows where my daughter would be now. I suspect the reality that she and others would have constructed for herself, based on expectations and self-perceptions implanted in her by the speech pathologist first, and her teacher’s later “confirmations,” would be quite different. I am almost certain that without extended, long term, costly, intervention she would not be the intelligent, self-aware, confident, compassionate, planet loving vegan that she is today. Of course, society is not set up to pay for the damages caused by events such as these, and so I personally absorbed the cost of all this in time and effort; nevertheless, it is worthwhile thinking about the costs to society, like lost productivity, expanded medical costs, expanding policing costs, etc., of such “toxic socialization” events (Sosteric, 2016). A single negative interaction can potentially cost society, the medical system, and even organizations, tens of thousands of dollars in actual physical/psychological disabilities, and in ephemerous and hard to track lost potential. This is not a little thing.
The morals of the story are equally self-evident, I feel. On a personal level, examine your expectations about yourself and the things around you. Isolate the source of these expectations. Pay attention to what others think of you. Be aware of the profound power of the human mind, as expressed in the “placebo effect.” Fight their negative evaluations. Be aware of the “Reality Placebo Effect.” Even a single dirty look, or a single off hand negative comment, can have consequences that ripple throughout your reality, and your life. And of course remember, it is not just about you. Your interactions with others, your perceptions of their “intelligence” or whatever have, even expressed subtly and indirectly, an impact on their expectations, which in turn has an impact on their perception, their actions, and, over the course of many years, their reality. I personally don’t believe in the “butterfly effect” when it comes to weather (a butterfly that flaps its wings in Athabasca can have an impact on weather in China), but it may be a thing when it comes to the human mind and its powerful effects on reality. If the anecdotal example from my own life is any indication, a single toxic butterfly can, through the rippling effect of expectation, action, and interaction, destroy a person’s life.
Moving forward, this is something to think about, not only in our own lives and for own sake and the sake of our children, but also in our interactions with colleagues, students, and the rest of the world outside. Be careful about the expectations you lay on yourself and others. Be positive and affirming in your interactions with others always; especially if you have power over them, because your ideas, images, and expectations will make a world of difference in the life of somebody know. (Sosteric, 2012).
Sosteric, M. (2012). The emotional abuse of our children: Teachers, schools, and the sanctioned violence of our modern institutions. The Socjourn, March. https://www.academia.edu/33737469/The_emotional_abuse_of_our_children_Teachers_schools_and_the_sanctioned_violence_of_our_modern_institutions
Sosteric, M. (2016). Toxic Socialization. Socjourn.