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.