We all know that the placebo effect can help sugar pills combat illness: Believing we're taking medicine, we expect it to work—and it does. But in his new book, Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations
, science journalist Chris Berdik explains that expectations do much more, affecting everything from our physical endurance to our overall happiness. When left unchecked, assumptions can wreak havoc (causing superstar athletes to choke when the stakes are high, for instance, or turning negative stereotypes into self-fulfilling prophecies). Yet they can also be a source of positive change. Read on for some of Berdik's most fascinating findings—and expect to be surprised.
The No-Workout Workout
Merely thinking of your daily routine as a workout can help you get fit. In a study coauthored by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, hotel maids who were told that their work—including changing linens and vacuuming—was actually exercise significantly improved their fitness without changing their routines. In four weeks, they lost more weight and body fat, lowered their blood pressure, reduced their waist-to-hip ratio, and improved their body mass index compared with the control group, who weren't prepped to think of their activities as exercise.
Outsmarting Your Brain
Though it may seem like your body gives out when it runs out of gas, research suggests that your brain anticipates when you'll become overly fatigued and tells your body to slow down before you're spent. But it turns out that you can keep going if your brain expects to get more fuel. In a 2009 British study, cyclists rode a stationary bike as fast as possible while rinsing their mouths with one of two liquids and spitting it out. The liquids tasted the same, but one contained carbohydrates. The carb-swishers generated more power than the non-carb group; their mouths sensed the carbs and sent signals to the brain that counteracted the effects of fatigue.
Performance Under Pressure
Being told you thrive under pressure could help you perform in a pinch. In a 2012 study, researchers had participants throw a ball at a target, then complete two questionnaires. Some were told that their answers indicated they would perform well under pressure, while others received nonspecific feedback about their abilities. When participants were asked to hit the target again while being videotaped and offered prizes for improving their accuracy by 15 percent, almost 90 percent of the people told they'd do well under pressure met the accuracy goal, compared with just 27 percent of the control group. Ta-da!
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