The power of suggestion


Expectations influence cognitions and behaviours: if I bring my lucky four-leaf clover to an exam, I will do well. Image: Shutterstock

The effects of suggestion play a much larger role in shaping our lives than most people realise.

When we expect a specific outcome, we automatically set in motion a chain of cognitions and behaviours to produce that outcome — and wrongly attribute our success or failure to its cause. For instance, a student who expects that a rabbit’s foot will help them do well on an exam might believe more in his own abilities, have less anxiety and persist longer on difficult questions, than one who has no lucky charms.

Psychological scientists Maryanne Garry and Robert Michael of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, along with Irving Kirsch of Harvard Medical School and Plymouth University, investigated the phenomenon of suggestion, exploring the relationship between suggestion, cognition and behaviour. According to Michael, our response expectancies are influenced by our prior experience, our present beliefs, the situations we find ourselves in and, perhaps most importantly, by others.

“We encounter suggestion every day of our lives. We like to believe that our thoughts and our behaviors are rationally constructed, but what the research shows is that, in fact, our thoughts and our behaviors are influenced by all manner of seemingly irrelevant information — including suggestion and expectation,” Michael said.

However, it’s not only deliberate suggestion what influences our thoughts and behaviours, suggestions that are not deliberate can have the same effect. As Garry pointed out, “simply observing people or otherwise making them feel special can be suggestive,” a phenomenon Garry attributes to the Hawthorne effect.

“We realised that the effects of suggestion are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think,” said Garry to the Association for Psychological Science.

As a result, people might work harder or stick to a task for longer. For example, a scientist who knows what the hypothesis of an experiment is might unwittingly lead subjects to produce the hypothesised effect — and for reasons that have nothing to do with the experiment. “This case is more worrying,” says Garry. “Although we might then give credit to some new drug or treatment, we don’t realise that we are the ones who are actually wielding the influence.”

The unintended effects of suggestion aren’t only restricted to the lab, but are incorporated in real world scenarios, including the fields of medicine, education and criminal justice. Therefore, understanding these issues has important real world implications.

“For society in general, I think we can say that the effects of suggestion and expectation have not been given the attention they deserve,” Michael says. “Sometimes these effects are startling, and that can be good or it can be bad.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science


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