The Power of Expectations
What you expect to get out of something matters. The couple that arrives at a music concert expecting to be blown away will likely find the performance more enjoyable than the pair whose friend warned them the band wasn’t strong on stage.
The woman who dines at the fancy restaurant every food critic has been lauding for months believes the meal is tastier than the same dinner (made with the exact same ingredients) at a lesser-praised restaurant.
The students who’ve enrolled in a course due to their teacher’s positive reputation rate their class experience better than had they learned the same content from a less popular teacher.
These scenarios are related to the phenomenon known as the self-fulfilling prophecy: Expecting something to happen actually helps cause that thing to happen. Expect a good concert, a delicious meal or an engaging history class – and that’s what you’ll get. It’s also a concept that can help – or hurt – us in our sport and exercise lives.
On the one hand, the power of expectations can work in crippling ways. For example, a baseball hitter mired in a dreadful slump may begin to expect to strikeout before each at-bat, which leads to increased anxiety and decreased concentration as he approaches the batter’s box. In turn, he may perform worse. Same goes for the athlete who believes she’s doomed to fail her upcoming team-wide fitness test: The expectation of failure will make her less likely to prepare seriously (“I’m going to bomb it anyway, so what’s the point of even getting ready for it?”) and she may end up proving herself right.
On the other hand, expectations can work in productive ways.
Consider the famous case of Roger Bannister, an English medical student who, on May 6, 1954, became the first person to break the four-minute mile barrier. Prior to Bannister’s epic run, no runner had ever done it – they’d been attempting it for years – and it was generally believed that clocking in at under four minutes was physiologically impossible.
However, six weeks following Bannister’s run, a second runner broke the four-minute barrier. And within the next calendar year, more than a dozen runners would go on to break it. Curiously, nobody had done it before Bannister, but all of a sudden, twelve runners had accomplished the unthinkable within a single year. Why? One explanation is that once the psychological barrier was lifted, others started believing it was possible and that they could do it, too. And with this belief came the heightened ability to achieve the task. It became self-fulfillingly prophetic: Runners who came to expect a certain performance reached it.
If you expect to thrive in a particular sport, class or workout, you’ll put in more time, greater effort and a more sustained focus – all of which drive up the chances for success. Recent research demonstrates that how much you believe exercise will be effective actually affects your well-being. Test subjects who believed, prior to exercising, that physical activity would have positive effects enjoyed the exercise more, elevated their mood more and reduced their anxiety more than less optimistic test subjects. According to measurements of brain activity, the participants with greater expectations before the beginning of the study were more relaxed.
This evidence raises an important question: Can people be positively or negatively influenced to develop certain mindsets before engaging in exercise, clean eating or other healthy lifestyle behaviors? Turns out, you can. Here’s how:
- Psychologist Robert Zajonc called it the mere exposure effect: The more often we encounter something, the more we like it. In other words, people grow to like people, places and things they’re around often. With this in mind, the more exposure you have to the benefits of a healthy lifestyle activity like exercise – thinking about it, talking to others about it, imagining it, reading about it and watching it – the better your relationship will be with the activity.
- We tend to feel excitement about something when we know for sure it’s helping us. Being able to measure improvement helps us stay motivated and enter our workouts with positive expectations. If you’re interested in larger muscles from the gym, measure your bicep circumference before and after an arm workout to detect real change. If it’s a better mood you’re after, fill out a simple questionnaire checking in on your well-being and mood before and after exercise. (Something as simple as “How am I feeling?” and “How’s my mood right now?” would work). Making it quantifiable gives you hard, undeniable evidence of exercise’s positive effects – and will keep you coming back for more.
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP