The Power of Suggestion
We’d like to believe that our thoughts and actions are entirely our own, but research by Victoria University of Wellington, Harvard Medical School and Plymouth University shows this isn’t entirely true. We perceive the world using two main channels of information: firstly our own raw sensory perceptions, such as what we can see and hear, and secondly our intricate layers of beliefs, knowledge, and expectations. We need these in order to make sense of our perceptions, but they play a bigger role in shaping our thoughts and behaviours than many people realise. By expecting a certain results, our thoughts and actions will actively help bring that result to fruition—and we falsely attribute our success or failure to those actions. For example, a student taking an exam might be wearing her lucky socks, and this simple belief may make her actively alert, experience less anxiety, and persist longer on hard questions. Suggestion is a similarly powerful phenomenon—basically, suggestion is to guide the thoughts or behaviours of some else. An example is hearing “hidden messages” in music played backwards. Listen to this Stairway to Heaven clip backwards and it will probably sound like garbled nonsense—but then check out the lyrics and listen again. Until you’re told what to hear, you don’t hear it—suggestion drastically alters the way you process incoming information. Expectation and suggestion influence an enormous range of things, from a scientist unconsciously shaping an experiment to support a particular hypothesis, to patients experiencing the placebo affect, to victims falsely identifying suspects in a line-up. Clearly, the relationship between suggestion, cognition and behaviour is crucial to understand, since researchers don’t yet know their boundaries or limitations. Especially in the scientific community, we must be aware of suggestions and expectations, and control them to avoid unintentionally biased outcomes.