A lot of men were dying and nobody knew why.
In the late 70’s, the CDC realized that a shocking number of Hmong immigrants, ages 25-45, were dying in their sleep. They would gasp for breath but before help could arrive, they were gone. Autopsies revealed nothing. Perplexed, epidemiologists started calling it “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome.” SUNDS was killing more Hmong men than the top five causes of death combined.
But someone had an idea. Oddly enough, she wasn’t a doctor; she was an anthropologist. Shelley Adler knew that in Hmong folklore it was believed that the “dab tsog” – an evil demon – could paralyze and smother victims at night. In their home country of Laos, shamans would perform magic to fight off the spirit. But here in the US, shamans were few and far between. And most Hmong no longer practiced the religion they had been raised with.
Enter “Sleep Paralysis.” A very real but usually innocuous medical condition that 8% of people experience. For most of your sleep cycle, your body “switches off” movement. In Sleep Paralysis, your body delays switching it back on. Briefly, you’re conscious — but unable to move. Very scary though harmless. But Shelley thought the men were interpreting this as the dab tsog attacking them. They’d panic and some would have a heart attack. And as word spread about the deaths, more and more Hmong men became afraid, and thereby susceptible.
Shelley turned out to be right. However, Western medicine wasn’t very effective in getting the Hmong to give up the ideas they’d been raised with. And the deaths continued…
So the local hospital brought in Hmong shamans. When men would see a doctor, they wouldn’t just get Western medicine, they’d also get traditional “magic.” (One shaman placed a sword above the ward door to defend against demons.) The men believed they were now protected. They felt if the spirits came, they were now imbued with magic and could fend them off.
The deaths stopped. And it happened because the men’s beliefs – their expectations – changed.
Some might think that the Hmong had silly ideas and that those of us fully immersed in the modern world are immune to all this hooey. Uh, not really…
A while back in the US and UK there were a flood of stories about the negative side effects of statins. The drugs could cause severe muscle pain. But this didn’t get much coverage in Japan and Sweden. The rate of side effects in the English-speaking countries was 10-12%. Guess how often the side effects occurred in the non-English speaking countries? Two percent – which is about what the research showed was normal in placebo-controlled studies. In the US and UK, they believed it — so it happened.
No, this isn’t an issue of beliefs magically affecting the world. But our expectations can drastically affect what we perceive. Psychosomatic pain, limiting beliefs, the placebo effect, optical illusions… Expectations are powerful. They aren’t going to warp reality, but they can influence your responses to what happens to you. Denial and mere positive thinking aren’t the answer, but often our responses to difficult situations are due to our expectations — and we can change those. We can use this fact to live better lives, if we’re clever.
It’s time to pop the epistemic bubble on some bad beliefs and acquire more useful ones. We’ll get help from the latest science. (The only science that is okay with outdated information is Astronomy.) David Robson’s book is “The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World.”
Let’s get to it…
We all know that our ability to persist, to focus, and to resist temptation is limited. We only have so much willpower…
But that’s only true if we believe it. Veronika Job at the University of Vienna gave subjects a boring test of concentration designed to stress their brains. People who believed willpower was limited saw their performance decline over time — but those who did not believe it showed no signs of fatigue. In a subsequent study she gave that first group a mini-lecture on how willpower wasn’t limited and had them take the test again. This time their accuracy doubled.
Your brain can handle a lot more than you give it credit for and those beliefs about limited willpower can hold you back. And this isn’t just true during nerdy lab studies.
Veronika had people keep a daily diary of the stresses they were under, their goals and how much they strived. She found that having a non-limited vision of willpower nearly gave people superpowers. They were far more productive, had higher expectations of themselves, and even recovered faster after a tough day. In fact, they were more productive after a tough day than their average day. Greater challenges just further boosted their stamina and motivation.
You can handle a lot more than you think you can — as long as you believe you can handle more than you think you can.
So changing our expectations can make us perform better. How can it help us feel better?
There are a number of states that have no excuse for themselves, like depression, anxiety and New Jersey. We hate feeling down. But the problem here is that many of us think we should feel cheerier than a morning TV news show every single day. That’s unrealistic.
Ups and downs are normal. But when we have the expectation that we’re supposed to feel joyous all the time we suspect that there’s something wrong with us. That we’re broken.
Psychologist Iris Mauss found that the more people criticized themselves for having negative emotions or judged these emotions as “wrong”, the worse they felt. More depression, more anxiety, lower life satisfaction. Meanwhile people who accepted their feelings without judging them were much more psychologically healthy.
You’re going to have ups and downs. You’re human. (And if you’re not human, please write to me. I’d love to meet a dog that can read.) Accepting your feelings is the single best way to feel better about your life. (Actually, it’s second to deleting the Twitter app from your phone, but it’s still pretty helpful.)
Again, expectations are powerful. And not just with big stuff like productivity and happiness. It can also help with common problems like overeating…
Please don’t call the cops but last night I sedated you and gave you a gastric bypass. Do you believe me? If you do, today you’ll get 70% of the effects of actually having had that surgery. When people were fooled into believing they couldn’t eat more, they ate significantly less.
If you currently feel your body is an aesthetic obscenity and your eating habits are a constant source of grump, you can change that by changing what you believe. What you’re aware of.
Patient H.M. is a famous case in the neuroscience literature. He had severe “anterograde amnesia” — he couldn’t make new memories. If they fed him and then waited a few minutes until he forgot about it, he would eat an entire second meal. And both times he’d report the same level of satiation.
Point is, memory plays a part in eating. A much bigger part than we think. You feel the limit is in your stomach but often it’s in your brain. Studies show even mild forgetfulness is associated with overeating.
So Suzanne Higgs did a study where she offered students cookies. But if she first had them take a few minutes to remember everything they ate for lunch, they consumed 45% fewer of them.
Feel free to replicate this study yourself. Multiple times a day. Take a moment to think about how much you’ve already eaten and you’ll eat less.
And when you eat, pay attention. When we have meals while doing other things, we eat more. It’s the same principle: if you don’t pay attention to how much you eat, it’s harder to remind yourself you’re not hungry. You’re effectively transforming yourself into Patient H.M.
Savor your food. Notice your food. You’ll enjoy it more and you’ll eat less.
Beliefs can change your waistline but that’s not the only way they can make you look and feel much better…
Old age is where everybody wants to get but nobody wants to be. (Believe it or not, in thirty years young people will be rolling their eyes and saying “OK, Zoomer.”)
But that’s the problem here: we think aging is awful. And that turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. David Robson sums up the research:
People with a more positive attitude to their later years are less likely to develop hearing loss, frailty, and illness—and even Alzheimer’s disease—than people who associate aging with senility and disability.
Or, to put a different spin on it: if you have a terrible view of being old, you may not get a chance to do it. Becca Levy at the Yale School of Public Health found that people with a positive perception of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative feelings about getting older, even after controlling for other factors.
Again, it’s not magic – your beliefs affect the choices you make. If you think getting older is inevitably awful, why bother taking care of yourself? But if you think it can be good, you might be inclined to eat right, hit the gym and visit the doctor more often.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and see how expectations can make your whole world better…
This is how to make your life better through belief:
Violet was a tough little five-year-old tomboy. The fifth of six kids, she didn’t get much attention. She was rebellious and prone to getting into fights at her school, Spruce Elementary in San Francisco. Nobody expected much of her.
That year, psychologist Robert Rosenthal showed up to do a study. He told the teachers some children were “bloomers.” They could experience a huge burst in their IQ over a short period of time compared to their peers. Rosenthal administered a test to the children and gave a list of the “bloomers” to the teachers.
Rosenthal was right. The kids he designated as bloomers got smarter much faster than their peers – an average of 15 IQ points smarter.
Sure enough, little Violet was a bloomer. Over the course of first grade, her IQ shot up an incredible 37 points. That’s the difference between “average” and “genius.” Nobody could believe it. Of course, there’s a twist…
Rosenthal’s “test” was a sham. There were no bloomers. He was actually testing how teachers’ belief in students affected the children’s performance. And when given that list of “gifted” students, the instructors inevitably and unconsciously treated them differently. The “bloomers” didn’t even get more time with the teacher (in fact, they got less time) but the subtle positive feelings instructors had about them changed how those kids felt about themselves. The teachers felt they had potential and so the kids did too.
Little Violet wasn’t a “bloomer.” She did better because someone changed their expectations about her. Someone believed in her.
Our beliefs about ourselves can improve our lives. And when we believe in others we can improve theirs too. Believe in the people you’re close to.
Please take some time to reconsider and update your expectations about yourself and those around you. It can make a big difference. (And if you don’t, I’m going to have a dag tsog demon decrease your willpower, shorten your lifespan, make you obese, and cause you to become unhappy.)
As Anais Nin, said, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”