The Frontal Cortex

The Power of Expectations

I had an article in the Sunday Boston Globe Ideas section on the way our expectations of reality often trump reality itself:

Expectations have long been a topic of psychological research, and it’s well known that they affect how we react to events, or how we respond to medication. But in recent years, scientists have been intensively studying how expectations shape our direct experience of the world, what we taste, feel, and hear. The findings have been surprising – did you know that generic drugs can be less effective merely because they cost less? – and it’s now becoming clear just how pervasive the effects of expectation are.

The human brain, research suggests, isn’t built for objectivity. The brain doesn’t passively take in perceptions. Rather, brain regions involved in developing expectations can systematically alter the activity of areas involved in sensation. The cortex is “cooking the books,” adjusting its own inputs depending on what it expects.

Although much of this research has been done by scientists interested in marketing and consumer decisions, the work has broad implications. People assume that they perceive reality as it is, that our senses accurately record the outside world. Yet the science suggests that, in important ways, people experience reality not as it is, but as they expect it to be.

I go on to discuss the power of expectations as demonstrated by numerous studies involving cheap wine, Sobe energy drinks and painful electrical shocks.


  1. #1 Kevin D. Washburn
    February 26, 2008

    The article presents a great summary and synthesis of several related studies. As an educator, these findings and the inevitable conclusion to be drawn reinforce the necessity of teaching students critical thinking skills. Not merely using teacher questions based on Bloom’s taxonomy, but actually teaching students how to engage in metacognition and what to “look for” as they review their own thinking. We need to make critical thinking a central curricular component rather than something that we “add in” to jazz up our instruction.

    By the way, love the blog! Keep up the great work, and thank you for keeping us informed!

  2. #2 jb
    February 26, 2008

    Last Sunday 2/24 there was an interesting radio program about testosterone on NPR’s This American Life. One man reported what it was like to have no testosterone for awhile (some health problem was the cause). He was totally without desire for anything and not wanting anything had no expectations about getting anything. He did go buy food, he didn’t say why, but he said that a loaf of Wonderbread with mayonnaise was just as acceptable as choosing something ‘tastier’or ‘healthier’. Not only was it acceptable, it was beautiful or fine (can’t remember the exact adjective). As was everything else in his world. He could appreciate even the most mundane objects because he was just open to what is and had no preference for one thing over another. The other aspects of the program were equally interesting.

  3. #3 boojieboy
    February 26, 2008

    I like to tell my students “your brain is an inference machine” and everything you think and experience about reality is massively altered and filtered by it. It’s basically radical neo-representationalism.

    Of course, this sort of attitude drives the Neo-Gibsonians nuts.

    But that’s, like, their opinion, Man…

  4. #4 mareth
    February 26, 2008

    About expectation being concomitant with experience – I’ve noticed that people taking LSD nowadaze don’t experience the same spiritual intensity that I did when i took it with Tim Leary (The High Priest of Acid) who in turn (I reckon) had shamanic expectations from consuming Magic Mushrooms in Mexico (and from Huxley and Crowley).I reckon Tim realised this and cleverly promoted acid along with the ‘Peace and Love’ mantra. I think Charles Manson conciously decided not to accept that expectation and laid War & Hate on his desciples. So we still expect to experience opposites in this reality don’t we? However I’m expecting Johan to come up with a completely different experience along the lines of uniting arts and science on equal terms instead of regarding them as opposites. After all he’s got loads of time – he’s only 26.

  5. #5 jb
    February 27, 2008

    Some stories about expectations. My hairdresser awhile back suggested a book called “The Secret” to me. Now good hairdressers are hard to come by so, despite my misgivings from even the jacket of the book, I read it. The ‘secret’ turned out to be having positive expectations and thoughts about the world so that the world would behave accordingly.
    I decided to try this out. In the middle of signing the contract of a house sale for my aunt, I learned that the new owner was planning on renting out the house. I immediately reacted negatively and after the closing asked my realtor who had lied. Then I remembered the premise of the book and thanked the realtor for all her hard work and apologized for not having asked the right questions prior to the sale, and I was careful not to say anything further that was negative about the matter. Several months later I learned from a neighbor that the new owner was doing elaborate renovations to the house and planned on living there himself after retirement. Of course this buyer appeared before I had a change of heart so my expectations didn’t matter. However some time later the housing market fell apart and I was very glad that I had gone with this guy’s offer, which at the time was less than the asking price. And when I shared my final appreciation of the sale with the realtor she offered me a place to stay when I visit my aunt.
    As to thinking negatively about a situation and this precipitating a negative outcome, some time after the house sale I heard the following on an NPR interview with an author. This photojournalist had learned that the US had troups in Africa and that these troops were being subjected to bad treatment unbeknownst to the US people. He decided to let people know and at risk to himself took a photo that caused a great uproar and later won him a Pulitzer prize. The unforseen result of his negative reaction to the situation was that terrorists everywhere decided this was a very successful tactic for upsetting the US and increased its use. Needless to say the journalist was not a happy person. I mention this outcome only to show how powerful is this business of creating reality with our expectations.
    So try this out in your own life.

  6. #6 fussball
    March 7, 2009

    Gute Arbeit hier! Gute Inhalte.

  7. #7 fussball
    March 7, 2009

    Gute Arbeit hier! Gute Inhalte.

  8. #8 Chung Wimberly
    July 2, 2011

    What a load of liberal claptrap! The reason economy has problems is because of the liberal elite Clinton machine turning an open, freedom loving market economy into a communist/socialist give away society that panders to the lay about, self-indulgent mongrols of lower humanity. I say get a job you bums! And leave the complexities of high finance to your superiors.

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