Skip to main content

How do your expectations affect your mind and body? In this week’s podcast, Sonya speaks with award-winning science writer David Robson about the expectation effect and how your expectations change how you physically and mentally react to various situations.

David is the author of two books, the most recent, the main subject of this podcast – The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life. He also authored The Intelligence Trap in 2019. 

David graduated with a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University and then worked as a features editor at New Scientist. He then moved to BBC Future as a senior journalist. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Men’s Health and more. He’s received awards from the Association of British Science Writers and the UK Medical Journalists’ Association (MJA) and, in 2022, won Mental Health Story of the Year at the MJA Annual Awards.

“And I think you can actually interrogate why you’re feeling anxious. And it’s probably because it really matters to you. And it probably matters to partly because it’s not certain that you’re going to perform well. If you knew you were going to win the race, the race would be too easy. If you knew you’re going to pass the exam without even trying, it wouldn’t really be an achievement. So I think actually just recognizing that the anxiety is there because something is personally meaningful and that actually, is what makes life exciting is facing things that have some level of uncertainty and overcoming them. That is what makes life day to day more meaningful and exciting to us. And, rather than seeing the anxiety as your enemy just seeing it as the engine of growth, I think that’s incredibly powerful.”

– David Robson

Listen Now

Key Takeaways

  • What is the expectation effect?
  • Overcoming negative expectations
  • How mindset relates to expectations
  • How your relationships affect expectations and outcomes
  • Setting yourself up for prime performance
  • Setting realistic expectations
  • Expectations and food
  • The placebo effect


One of the biggest challenges with supplements is that there are so many out there and it’s so difficult to understand and figure out the right ones to take. If you’re looking to level up your health, I highly recommend checking out Previnex and their supplements! Previnex uses the highest quality forms and levels of each and every ingredient, all are manufactured at pharmaceutical grade levels (meaning Previnex does ingredient testing on each and every ingredient, production run testing, and finished product testing). In addition to the quality of their products, I love their mission. Previnex is on a mission to improve health for everyone. For every order or any products, Previnex donates a bottle of their premium children’s multivitamin, Super Vites, to malnourished children throughout the world. To try them out, use the code sonya15 and get 15% off your first order!

Bivo designed a stainless steel performance water bottle with a flow rate that could keep up with our hydration needs. No chugging, no air, no mold, just a clean path of water delivered with ease. I collaborated on a bottle with Bivo with my F*cking Magical Unicorn design! Use code SonyaLooney_freeground for free shipping in the U.S. And check out my recent podcast with founder Carina Hamel.



Sonya Looney: Welcome to the show, David.

David Robson: Thanks so much for having me.

Sonya: I was so excited to find your book because expectations are such a huge part of life, whether we know it or not. So what made you start thinking about expectations and want to write a book about it?

David: Yeah, I mean, like you say, we carry so many of these beliefs with us about kind of how sporty we are, whether we’re prone to getting sick, what’s going to happen to us as we age. But like you say, they’re actually, I describe them as being a bit like the air we breathe, and they’re constantly present, but we’re never aware of them. We just kind of assume that they’re true, and then forget about them. But actually, in the expectation effect, I’m really arguing that the beliefs in themselves, the changing outcomes, and I really got into this subject through the placebo effect. And I’m a science writer, and it’s kind of inevitable that I would eventually write an article about the placebo effect. But it just happened that while I was writing that article, I also started experiencing some kind of expectation effect through some drugs I was taking. So I had depression, and was put on some very standard antidepressant pills. And my doctor just kind of warned me as she was obliged to do that one of the side effects could be bad headaches, and almost immediately, I started experiencing these kind of migraines every day. Start as soon as I got up, it was very difficult to focus on my work, it was quite debilitating. But what I discovered when I was writing about the placebo effect, is that this often happens when people are given placebos, when they’re given those sham treatments. And they might be told that they’re told the benefits, as well as the common side effects of the drugs they’re supposed to be taking. And actually, they experienced those side effects almost as regularly as the people taking the actual active drug. Now, this is known as the nocebo effect is the opposite of the placebo effect is nocere in Latin, which means to harm, so it’s now a well-studied phenomenon. And I realized that that was probably what was happening to me. And that realization actually helped the pain to disappear after about a day. So it was incredibly liberating knowing that my expectations potentially creating this additional sickness that I was feeling. And from there, I just kind of dug into the research and compiled a huge Word document of all of the exciting new findings that I came across. And after about five years, I realized that there was this big story to tell about expectations, not just in medicine, but then in sports and in diet, sleep, and even changing how we age, our longevity can depend on our beliefs. And it was when I came across that I just thought people need to know about this research.

Sonya: I imagine after five years that Word document was probably pretty long.

David: Yeah, it was. To be honest, then it was quite amazing. As you have to do, I wrote a proposal and the words just flowed so quickly. It’s like 10,000 words in a few days, just because I’d amassed all this evidence already. And somehow it had just crystallized into this story that I wanted to tell.

Sonya: So I love that your book has so many different studies that people can refer to. And I’ve referred to many of them myself, because I think a lot of times we think that this is some sort of woo woo manifesting thing? Well, if I think about the side effects, or I think about the benefits, and then they just happen, it’s magic, but it’s actually not magic in some way. So how does this actually work?

David: Yeah, I mean, it’s a big frustration to me that there has been a lot of this kind of vague positive thinking literature out there that it kind of often uses kind of pseudo science or kind of magical terms, this idea of the law of attraction to describe how your beliefs can shape your life. But actually, like you said, this is all based on really robust science. And it’s based on very plausible, well studied biological and psychological mechanisms. And so essentially, the new theory of the brain sees it as this kind of prediction machine. And what scientists mean by that is that it’s constantly creating these simulations of the world around us. Now, both simulations can actually shape our sensory processing, so it will actually change the way the data coming in from your eyes or your ears is processed. Sometimes deleting the details it doesn’t think are relevant based on the simulation, sometimes actually filling in the gaps if it’s poor ambiguous data. From that from this combination of the data and the simulation, that’s where your conscious perception comes from. But in addition to changing your perception, your expectations then are also going to change your behavior. And they can also change your physiology. And that’s because the simulations are helping the body to prepare for the challenges that the brain thinks you’re gonna face. So whether that’s in evolutionary history, facing a predator, or going on a hunt, or gathering food, or getting ready for courtship, all of these things, it makes sense for the brain to be preparing the body for that situation. And exactly the same thing is happening today. If you’re just about to compete in an important event, your brain’s already forming calculations about what your body can achieve, and what, how it can plan out your resources so that you don’t become too exhausted before the end of the event.

Sonya: And taking that a step further, whenever you put so much pressure on yourself in an event that can lead to choking and that impacts your physiology. And it’s just amazing whenever you think about your mind and how the things that you start thinking can impact how you perform and how your body feels.

David: Yeah, exactly. And, I mean, there’s quite a source of subtle research on choking. But I think one of the problems is that we can get into these ruminative catastrophic cycles of thinking. The same thing could happen for any important event, whether it’s giving a talk, or even taking an exam is that your body’s kind of reached this kind of level of physiological arousal, which can be potentially good. But then you add to that another layer of worry, by kind of thinking of all the ways that things can go wrong, by dwelling on the shame that you might feel if it does go wrong, getting trapped in those thoughts, which is going to reduce things like your creativity and your cognitive potential. But it also amps up the stress response. It kind of puts you into a state of panic, which is suboptimal, like stress can be beneficial to the body for performance, but you want it to be an optimal level of stress, you don’t want it to go too far. And I think that’s what’s happening when we’re choking is that we’ve just kind of tipped over into a point where actually, it’s harming our performance.

Sonya: I like the story you told him the book around fear, about how you someone had tried to break into your apartment, and then after that every sound that you heard you thought that somebody was trying to break in.

David: Right, I mean, this is an example of a perceptual expectation effect, because like I mentioned, the brain simulations, when it’s acting as this prediction machine, can then shape the sensory processing. And that was very much what was happening in this case. So one night I kind of woke up, and I heard the kind of front door lock open and someone pushed the door, luckily, the chain was on so they didn’t get in. But, after that had happened, I was obviously on high alert state where my brain was kind of constantly looking out for the same thing to happen again, and it would be something like my printer just randomly sometimes wakes up, I don’t know why, and starts to just move the cartridge a bit and maybe cleaning itself. But when that would happen, it doesn’t really sound like a lock turning at all. But I would be certain that someone was breaking in again, and I’d kind of go running through it. And then find that there was no intruder, it was just the printer. But I think this is the power of our expectations is that because my brain was expecting to hear someone breaking, it had morphed those sensory signals in something that sounded very similar to the actual event. That’s a kind of funny, trivial example. But actually, we see very similar things when people are experiencing chronic pain. What’s happened is that the brain has started to amplify pain signals, but also then the expectation of pain and the fear of pain is then that’s actually like enhancing the pain signaling further and the way the brain interprets the pain signaling and then kind of exacerbating the agony that people are feeling.

Sonya: We’ve sort of talked about the negative expectations whenever you’re scared, and then you are on the lookout for other bad things to happen or when you’re in pain, your body is looking for more ways to stay in pain. So what do you do whenever you’re in one of these negative loops to get out of it and to realize either the reality or to just change your expectations around it but not just imagining something is going to be better, but actually doing the right thing?

David: Yeah, I mean, it really depends on the situation. But the research shows, there are good ways that we can kind of shift the brain’s predictions to reduce our discomfort in whatever situation that we’re facing. To give just a few examples, if someone is suffering from social anxiety, they have this expectation that people are going to be more hostile to them than they really are. And that actually then changes kind of their visual attention. So, they’re more likely to see the negative faces in a crowd. Now those negative faces might not be, people might be in bad moods for all kinds of reasons, it doesn’t have to be a directed towards them. And I’ve suffered from social anxiety myself, so I know what this is like, but your eyes naturally go to those people. And that’s obviously going to then lower your mood, and it becomes this kind of vicious cycle. But there is evidence that, in that case, you can do this kind of brain training, where you can actually just try to encourage people to look for positive signals instead in the surrounding. So on these apps that you can try, there might be a sea of faces, and you have to focus more on their smiling faces in the task rather than the frowning faces. And that just kind of re-primes the brain to kind of be more balanced in what it’s looking for. And that can then reduce those levels of anxiety. So that is one way of doing this. More generally say with pain management, we can really try to break those catastrophizing thoughts that can often make our pain so much worse. One of the scientists that I spoke to, she said that when we catastrophize our pain, it’s like pouring gasoline on the pain signals. It’s so powerful, actually, making the situation so much worse for us. So what you want to do is to break that, and it’s not by ignoring the discomfort that you’re feeling, but it’s much more about just questioning your assumptions about what that pain means. And when I was having those bad migraines, for example, I kept on thinking, maybe I had like an allergic reaction to the pills. And actually, there was something seriously wrong with my brain chemistry. And I might tell myself that this pain is never going to end or I can’t cope with this pain, it’s never going to get better. Now, that is the kind of catastrophizing that I’m talking about. And then you can take it another level, and you might start to think about all of the bad things that are going to happen because of that pain. You might worry that you can, you know, miss all of your deadlines. Or you might worry that you’re going to miss an important of a family event. Now, the trick really with this is to try to nip the catastrophic thinking in the bud, essentially. So first of all, to be aware of when it’s happening to notice those patterns. And then to question those assumptions. Again, you’re not telling yourself a kind of unrealistic story that the pain doesn’t exist, but you’re just questioning, is it fair for me to say that the pain will never go away? Or have I had a similar migraine in the past that vanished within 24 hours or 48 hours. Lots of people experience migraines without any neurological problems. The most likely thing, if you have a migraine, it’s not that you have a serious neurological condition. Reminding yourself of all of these things, and just questioning, you know, your worst case scenario thinking, that can prevent the catastrophic thinking. And it’s been shown that it can significantly reduce people’s symptoms and speed up their recovery.

Sonya: I think a lot of us listening can relate. I definitely catastrophize. I did a trail running race in February, and actually got a migraine during the race. And I started thinking things like, oh my gosh, I’m probably…there’s something wrong with my brain. And that just started going down the path. And it was such a reminder that it’s important to come back to the present moment, because all those things haven’t happened yet. Those are just fears that they will happen. And that using the curiosity piece, asking those questions, I don’t know if you’ve seen Dr. Judd Brewer’s work, but he uses curiosity as an antidote to habit loops, such as worrying because it actually engages a different part of your brain and takes you out of that fear based rumination.

David: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I mean, another way you know that you can kind of really appraise discomfort is to kind of try to look at it almost like a scientist, just asking what objectively is going on here? How can I test it as well what are its causes just thinking about it very factually. And that’s actually something that you can do, anyone can do, when they’re kind of on a run, even if you’re just working out on the treadmill, and your performance has dropped for some reason that you don’t understand, and you already start to feel exhausted, or far too out of breath, or whatever. We all have those bad days. But actually, rather than then focusing on the drop in performance, and telling yourself you must be losing your fitness or there’s something wrong with your heart, or all of these things that you can be, start agonizing about just kind of objectively, dispassionately kind of observing and describing what goes on and kind of probing it, asking yourself to describe it in even more detail. That can actually just be a useful way of taking some of the sting out of the discomfort. And you might find that then actually you recover much more quickly from that temporary blip rather than it being prolonged for too long.

Sonya: Yeah. And I think that we can tend to blame ourselves whenever things are going wrong. You might have said, oh, I saw the I saw the side effects, and I’m experiencing the side effects, well it’s my fault because I’ve been thinking about it, or my kid is sick and now I thought maybe I had a little bit of a sore throat, and now I’m sick, so now it’s my fault, because I’m getting sick. So in terms of expectations, how do you work with those types of thoughts, whenever they do happen to you?

David: Yeah, we always want to avoid kind of shame and guilt. And this is something that we’re just not very good at recognizing as a society. In fact, I think in the UK, and definitely, or probably in the US, it’s the same, that there’s the sense that if you’re self-critical that you’re actually more committed, in some way, like you hold yourself to high standards. And part of that is to kind of punish yourself, if things aren’t going the way that they should, even if that is something as silly as like, catching COVID, and then telling yourself off for having caught a virus that no one in the world has been able to avoid. But I know friends who felt really guilty from having caught COVID. Similarly, I think if you’re having a bad day at the gym, you can start blaming yourself that not having slept well the night before, or for not having done enough workouts the previous week all of that isn’t helpful at all. Actually, the research shows that practicing self compassion is far more productive. So people who are kind to themselves and recognize that there are lots of other factors around that might be influencing the situation you’re in today. You might have just had a really shitty day at work, and then you’ve gone to the gym, and your bad mood is actually having an impact on your motivation, and how well you’re able to sustain your stamina. Well, that’s not your fault, that you’re not able to control every circumstance within your life. And just recognizing that and being kind to yourself, that’s going to actually be much better for maintaining your commitment and for making sure that you return to the gym again and again, rather than if you’re self critical, you’re much more likely to kind of give up and to not stay committed. So actually, just giving ourselves some slack is really important. And it just reduces our stress responses. It just makes sure that we’re psychologically healthier and as a result, physically healthier.

Sonya: Yeah, I think that putting yourself in the right state of mind helps. But that doesn’t necessarily control, that was a great word to use, it doesn’t control every single situation, just because you have an expectation.

David: No, and that’s what I was a bit worried about. Or I was conscious of that possibility coming up when I wrote the book that some people might think that it’s like, if I fail it’s because I don’t have the right mindset. And I’m to blame for that. And that’s not the case at all, like having the right mindset can definitely help you achieve a lot more than having the wrong mindset. It’s not foolproof, and that there could be lots of other reasons why things don’t go the way you’d like. And you actually have to be kind to yourself about that and to recognize that you can learn from the event like the perceived failure, you can still kind of analyze what went wrong, but you don’t have to feel guilt or shame over that. You can just see it as another point in your overall journey. And rather than kind of becoming too focused on that particular point, just think about the overall trajectory and where you want to get to the next day, the next week or the next year.

Sonya: So we’ve talked about some negative impacts of expectations. So let’s switch gears here and talk about some of the more beneficial impacts of having positive or hopeful expectations. I think a fun place to start would be with sports. And there’s some really interesting studies that you gave, simply by just what people were told, and how that impacted their performance and what they believed about themselves. Can you talk about that?

David: Are you thinking of the study where people are told about their kind of genetic predisposition in sports? Because that, yeah, that appealed to me a lot. Because I’d always assumed myself that I didn’t have good kind of sports genes. Because I was quite young in my year at school and say physical education lessons were always a bit of a challenge. And I was never gonna be as good as the kind of taller kids essentially. But the research showed that actually, your expectations can be as powerful as things like your genes. So they looked specifically at this gene called CREB1, which is implicated in things like endurance during exercise. If you have the kind of so called like good version of the gene, it just makes exercise a bit more comfortable. It reduces the perceived exertion, it changes things like your core body temperature as you’re exercising, if you have the good version, you’re a bit cooler, you’re not getting kind of hot and flustered. So it’s important, but the researchers gave these participants the real genetic test, and then gave them sham feedback. So someone would be good version might be told that they had the bad version and vice versa. And then they were told to do this endurance test on the treadmill. And they found that actually, the expectations from that sham feedback independently predicted all kinds of markers of their performance, including their endurance, but also things like the gas exchange within the lungs. And actually, when it came to those physiological changes, quite amazingly, the expectations were more important than the genes. So the genes did have an effect, but the expectations had even more of an effect on how efficiently they were exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. So if we go back to someone like me, who has expectations of my own fitness, based on something that’s no longer relevant, which was how fast I could run when I was 11, or 12, well, actually, that shows us that we really need to just question those assumptions again, and we should, by being overly negative about our own fitness, that can be really limiting. And it’s not just limiting in our motivation, is that essentially could potentially limit physiologically how we respond to the exercise and our performance. And so just having that more open-minded attitude, questioning am I as bad as I think, or, actually am I like, almost every human in the world, and can I just get better, the more exercise, having that more positive view of our bodies, that’s going to make the experience of the exercise more pleasant, and it’s going to bring about greater gains when you do work out.

Sonya: I think this is also really interesting from a coaching perspective, because if you tell your athlete you’re probably aren’t going to do very well at this, or you’re not as good as whoever or if somebody’s in a race, and you give them wrong information, all of those things can impact somebody’s performance. And so it’s so important to have the right type of people around you whenever you are looking for support and guidance and mentorship, because the expectations that you have of yourself can come from some of the things that they say to you.

David: Yeah, absolutely. And I also think it should change the way we look at social media and things like fitspiration posts, because there was a really good study from Australia that looked at whether fitspiration is actually inspirational for people working out. So they looked at all of these images of people being incredibly fit and healthy, looking great. And then got them to kind of go on the treadmill and actually work out themselves. And they found that compared to people who look to like pretty travel videos, potentially increased their perceived exertion during the exercise, so it felt harder after they’d seen the fitness pictures, and they enjoyed it a lot less. Actually, they didn’t get the same level of like mood boost that the people who had looked at the travel pictures that weren’t really relevant to the exercise. And the problem there is this social comparison. If you’re looking at someone who’s like who you think is better than you, now that might be a source of motivation, but you’re also making yourself feel that you’re inadequate in some ways, kind of reducing your perception of what you personally can achieve and are capable of because you don’t feel you’re as good as that other person. And is that then changes things like the perceived exertion, and ultimately makes the exercise feel more exhausting, less rewarding, because you’ve added this element of competition that this kind of screwed with your brains predictions.

Sonya: I think that if somebody thought that they were really close to the person that they were viewing, I’m just thinking about some of the visualizations that I use in sport, whenever I’m training. If I imagine I’m racing, somebody who is similar to me, then I actually perform better. But if I’m imagining somebody who’s way out front that I’ll never catch, then I might perform worse. So the visualization of what you’re doing, and who’s in your visualization, can really impact your performance.

David: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And there’s definitely research showing that people do perform better even than their personal best if you’re competing against other people compared to just kind of running by yourself. Because it is useful to if there’s someone who’s very close to you, but just ahead that can change your brains predictions to be to consider, well, actually, yeah, I am capable of that, too. But if the disparity is just too great, then like you say, it’s actually is making you feel worse about your own performance, and it feels like a futile task. And so that’s going to change what your brain simulations doing. And essentially, again, what the simulations, how they’re controlling your performance there, is that the brain is trying to work out how many resources it’s worth putting into this exercise. And if you feel that it’s futile, and you’re never going to catch up with that person or if you look at this other person who’s incredibly fit, and that makes you feel incredibly unfit, then it suggests that you might reach exhaustion more quickly, and you’re not going to get the reward at the end. So it actually starts pulling back on what it allows the body to do. And then that harms your performance.

Sonya: So how does somebody set themselves up for prime performance so that they have a lower perception of effort, and they also believe that they’re capable.

David: So I do love your idea of looking for someone who’s similar, but just a little bit better than you. I think that’s a really good way of increasing your performance. I think, again, what we shouldn’t be doing is like going to the gym for the first time and start imagining, visualizing ourselves being like an Olympic athlete, if we’re kind of nowhere near that level of performance, because it’s just going to be demoralizing when the reality hits home. But yes, small changes in your expectations, just kind of tweaking them to be a bit more optimistic, that’s great. That’s definitely gonna help. Think also just like reappraising the kind of symptoms that we’re feeling as we’re exercising. Those little aches and pains that you get. If you do notice that your heart rate has increased, or you’re feeling a bit out of breath, just reminding yourself that all of these things are a sign of growth, that they’re actually necessary to improve your performance rather than getting caught up in the catastrophic thinking of maybe worrying that they’re a sign of your lack of fitness and focusing on them as almost as evidence of failure. I think that’s another really important way that we can reframe our exercise and make it more enjoyable and boost up performance.

Sonya: That’s a good mental state to get into before, if you’re going to give a big speech somewhere, like a keynote speech, or maybe before this podcast, maybe I was a little bit nervous thinking I want this to go well, where should I set my expectations so that I show up in a way that is going to help the situation instead of harm the situation? And this also applies to a start line in sports.

David: Right, exactly. So this is something that I use all the time. And it’s about when you feel those nerves, and it can be relevant, like you say, for any situation, but I use it for public speaking, which is something I really used to dread. When I first started writing my first book and had to start giving talks, it was it was an ordeal that I felt like I had to get through but certainly not something that I would have chosen to do if I didn’t feel like it was important that the books success. And it’s simply to start thinking about your anxiety and the symptoms of anxiety in a more positive light, like I just suggested with the experiences of exercise. But in our culture, we view stress as being inherently debilitating. And that’s because we often push ourselves too far into that sub optimal stress state where when we’re almost in a state of physiological panic, rather than useful physiological arousal. But just reminding ourselves that actually, a lot of the things that you might experience when you’re stressed and anxious, things like that racing heart, that’s an evolved response because it’s meant to be beneficial, if it’s at the right degree. The heart racing is pumping oxygen around your body. If you’re in a sports event, it’s getting your muscles kind of filled with fuel filled with oxygen ready for started the race. Even when I’m public speaking, what it’s doing is it’s pumping all of that oxygen to my brain, and it’s making sure that I can think on my feet and be really focused, but jangling in your muscles that kind feeling, well, that’s partly caused by the cortisol, that’s in your blood. But that, again, is just raising your alertness and actually, moderate levels and moderate elevation of cortisol is incredibly useful to make sure that you’re kind of focusing on the things that really matter. And what the researchers found was that just changing people’s perception of the anxiety in this way to recognize that it can have an advantage. Well, that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. So actually, even when they did feel highly anxious, those people still perform much better, whether that’s in these graduate examinations that they were testing, or whether that’s in public speaking, or in sports events, in all these cases, they were turning the anxiety to their advantage in a way that they hadn’t been able to do previously, without trying to suppress the anxiety, but just by viewing it as an adaptive response.

Sonya: Yeah, this reminds me a lot of Kelly McGonigal ‘s work and The Upside of Stress, and just saying, and I think you mentioned this in your book as well, instead of saying, I’m so nervous, all these feelings are so bad, I’m freaked out, saying, I’m excited, I’m ready, these feelings are getting me ready, so that I can be my best instead of these feelings are gonna make me choke, these feelings are gonna make me perform worse.

David: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And I think you can actually interrogate why you’re feeling anxious. And it’s probably because it really matters to you. And it probably matters to partly because it’s not certain that you’re going to perform well. If you knew you were going to win the race, it, the race would be too easy. If you knew you’re going to pass the exam without even trying, it wouldn’t really be an achievement. So I think actually just recognizing that the anxiety is there because something is personally meaningful and that actually, is what makes life exciting is facing things that have some level of uncertainty and overcoming them. That is what makes life day to day more meaningful and exciting to us. And, rather than seeing the anxiety as your enemy just seeing it as the engine of growth, I think that’s incredibly powerful.

Sonya: This also makes me think about setting expectations. So you’re about to give a speech, like I hope people are gonna love it. Or you could say, I’m going to be the most awesome speaker everybody’s ever heard. You’re lining up for a race, I’m definitely going to win this race. Whenever you set the expectations that high, you might be thinking, well, because of what I heard on this podcast, if I believe that I’m going to win this thing, or I’m going to be the best ever, well, then I’m going to be the best ever. But there’s a gray area there and a pretty big gray area of what is realistic. So what do you tell people about being realistic, but also creating a situation so that you can perform at your best?

David: Yeah, I mean, we have to be realistic. And partly, this again comes down to the fact that we can’t control everything, certainly not just with our mindset. So you can put like students in the exam hall and you can teach them about the benefits of their anxiety. But if a student in that exam hall just has not studied and doesn’t have the factual material committed to memory, like the mindset intervention isn’t going to be able to make up for the lack of work that they’ve put in. So mindset interventions are never going to be a replacement for the other stuff that we also know is important for the success in the event that we’re taking part in and so that’s one reason why we shouldn’t become over reliant on expectations and set our expectations too high if what we’re really dreaming of isn’t actually a serious possibility. But also doing that, it’s kind of it’s like, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, if you’re always trying to be the best, and that’s not realistic. And once you’re disappointed by that, then I think that could actually backfire and create this kind of vicious cycle, essentially. So you’ll then because of the disappointment afterwards, you’re gonna be maybe more nervous the next time you give the talk, because it’s been a brutal experience to you. So that’s why I would never say that we should try to kind of believe in the unrealistic in a way that might be encouraged by something like books on manifesting, for example. But that doesn’t mean, so what should we do? Well, I think it’s just bringing it up to the sweet point where you’re like raising your expectations, you’re kind of counteracting the negative expectations, overly negative expectations. You’re thinking about some of the positives that might come out of the event. And a good kind of likely scenario, you might even leave yourself open to that amazing result, that’s a small possibility, but you’re not focusing solely on that. You’re kind of acknowledging the full range of possible outcomes and trying to put more of your attention right there in the middle, in the kind of comfortable zone, that’s neither too negative nor too positive. That’s how I see it. And I think that’s definitely how the researchers see it. And again, it’s all about looking at trajectories as well. So if my public speaking like, I didn’t go, when I started reappraising my mindset, I didn’t think I’m going to be super charismatic, I just thought, my stress is not as debilitating as I thought it might be. I can probably get through this and actually, the stress might be helpful to me in preparing my body, my mind, for me to give this talk, and to present what I know. And maybe the next time I can do it a little bit better. It worked exactly like that for me that I actually found that the event was a bit less stressful, when unless kind of uncomfortable and distressing, when I’d reframe my stress. And then the next time, I could kind of draw on that memory of the more pleasant talk that I gave the previous time to reset my expectations for the next talk. And like overtime, it just got better and better and better. And so now, when I give a talk, I don’t feel sick beforehand, I don’t kind of have that dread going out on stage. I do feel just kind of excited when I’m giving the talk. I do feel oxygenated, it’s like I have just been working out or been for like a pleasant quick walk around the park rather than facing a physical ordeal. And that to me is a success. That’s how I want to feel when I’m giving a talk, essentially. And so yeah, that’s what I think my advice would be is to focus on the trajectory, go step by step, slowly moving perhaps out of your comfort zone, but don’t immediately expect a miracle to happen, because that could lead to disappointment.

Sonya: Yeah, it sounds like the predictions that your brain is making, when you shift it towards what’s achievable within your control and on your process, instead of how the audience is going to perceive what I’m going to say or how you can’t control the outcome of a race at all. And if you look at your preparation, you look at your past positive experiences and say, now I can form a realistic expectation based on those things, not on what I hope happens.

David: Yeah, I think that’s exactly how it should be. And it’s also about just thinking, given the circumstances that I’m in at the moment, I can do the best that I possibly could. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be another person who’s gonna run quicker than me. And it doesn’t mean that there won’t be someone in the audience who has for some arbitrary reason, taken a real dislike to me, I can’t stop there being people in the world who don’t like me, but what I can do is make sure that I’m prepared, and then I’m using my anxiety or the stress response in the most productive way to make sure that I will at least do as well as I can. And then, you know, hopefully that will be enough to achieve my goal. But that’s the best I can kind of hope for.

Sonya: And not staring at the one person in the audience yawning, thinking they’re bored with you.

David: Well, I mean, that is actually that’s another benefit of reappraising your stress response in this way. When people are taught about the adaptive benefits of stress actually does shift for the perceptual focus, too. So people are less likely to do that, to focus on the person who’s yearning, and then more likely to see the faces of people who are smiling or nodding along. So yeah, psychologically, and physiologically it’s very beneficial.

Sonya: I wanted to move on to talking about the food part of the book, because that’s something that I had never heard of before, specifically, the things around descriptions around if a food is indulgent or not, or if a food is low calorie or not, and how that impacts you. So can you talk about that?

David: Yeah, I mean, so we’ve known for quite a while that our psychology plays a huge role in things like appetite. And we knew this from amnesic patients who because of brain damage that they were unable to form new memories. So what you could do is you could give these patients a meal, and they would eat it quite happily. And then you take the plate away, and by the time you’ve brought a second plate at dinner, they would have completely forgotten that they’d eaten, and they would quite happily eat that plate of food too, without even registering and changing their appetite, and that really shows that even though we have all these sensors in our guts that do kind of measure what we’ve consumed, that data is really ambiguous. So our psychology is, and our memories are providing this kind of context to that, which is then shaping how it reads that data and ultimately determining our appetite. So we knew that it was important. But what this research really showed was that actually changes things like our hormonal response to the food we eat, as well. So even something as simple as the labeling on a milkshake can determine the levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. And when we eat normally, if you have a big meal, ghrelin it should rise temporarily, because you feel hungry when you see the delicious food, and then it should drop dramatically, because once you’ve eaten, you’d no longer need to seek new foods. So ghrelin is all about stimulating appetite, and you have that rise and then fall after a meal. What these researchers did was they measured people’s ghrelin on two separate occasions while they were eating milkshakes. Now the milkshakes contents were exactly the same, but the labeling was completely different. On one, it looked like it was this kind of indulgent, decadent milkshake, the emphasis was all on the flavors and the full fat milk and the ice cream that had gone into it. On the other, it was labeled as this kind of sensible health shake that was no fat, no sugar, low calories, but also like no taste or satisfaction, there was nothing there to make it seem desirable. And that difference really shaped the growling response. For people who had the when people had the decadent, indulgent milkshake, when the labeling suggested all of those things, the ghrelin rose and fell exactly as it should do after a big meal. When the people had the other shake, the ghrelin just barely changed at all, despite the fact that the nutritional content was exactly the same in both cases. The hormonal response seemed to depend entirely on their expectations of whether the food was going to be satisfying, or whether it was just there just as a kind of sensible kind of health supplement. I think that’s the worst nightmare if you’re dieting is that you’re actually consuming a milkshake that has got quite a few calories in it. You think that you’re doing that because it’s going to offset your hunger. But because you don’t think it’s going to be satisfying, really, is actually leaving your ghrelin levels at the level they were before. So you’re still going to have those hunger pangs later on, you’re still going to have that appetite being stimulated. So it’s incredibly important this result, I think, for dieters everywhere to realize that actually, their expectations of what they can eat will determine how satisfied they feel about that meal, and whether they are going to snack later on.

Sonya: Smiling because I’ve eaten a plant based diet for a really long time. And people that haven’t tried any plant-based foods, they’re like, oh, you’re gonna be hungry, how are you not hungry all the time. And gosh, the food tastes terrible. And they have all of these expectations as to how it actually is. And then they’ll try something that I made and they’re like, wow, this actually tastes really good. And I actually feel full after this. And it’s just amazing how we play tricks on ourselves. But holding that, I wanted to ask about people who are trying to lose weight and maybe they do look at a healthier meal and they do assign these words. It’s just amazing how powerful words are. I’m not gonna feel satisfied, I’m not going to feel good. If they just tell themselves well, now I’m going to this, this is a fancy whatever meal, I’m gonna feel super good, but they don’t truly believe it, how do you frame the story to yourself so that it is real for you and that you actually see results?

David: Yeah, I mean, I think that is always going to be an issue when you’re dieting, if you’re only choosing foods purely for the low calorie content. I really think we should avoid choosing something bland just because it doesn’t have many calories. Trying to find an alternative that has like, something that really stimulates your appetite. So it could just be that it’s extra spicy, or something like having like anchovies in like a dish can really give it that strong umami flavor that might just feel a little bit more satisfying to someone, even if it doesn’t add many calories. Whatever, it could be the texture, the taste, you know, focusing on like, the quality of the ingredients, all of these things, I think can help us to feel that the meal that we’re having is a celebration. That is not just this kind of very bland kind of goop that we’re eating just for survival. Because I think that when you’re in that mindset, that you’re eating it purely to lose weight, but for no benefit, no pleasure at all, that is putting you into that mindset of deprivation, that’s not going to be good for dieting. So choosing our foods a bit more carefully and really considering the pleasure and satisfaction, that should be especially important when you’re dieting, it shouldn’t be something that you’re ignoring,

Sonya: It makes me think of this scene in The Matrix, and I’m probably gonna butcher it, but they’re eating this goop because they’re out of the matrix in the real world. And one guy takes a bite, he’s like, oh this is terrible. And the other guy takes a bite. He makes up some some delicious meal in his mind.

David: It’s very much like that. I don’t think we can turn a lettuce leaf into this kind of incredible banquet, just by imagining that it’s tasty, but we all have different foods that just are really appetizing to us. For me not that I really try to lose weight, but I do try to maintain my current weight sometimes by cutting back a bit, they would just be even a bowl of broccoli can be super satisfying if you have like a bit of chili, some parmesan cheese or some anchovies, just something to kind of give it a bit of a boost. For me, the worst thing would be to have a very bland health shake, that’s kind of gone within 30 seconds and didn’t really have much of a flavor either. So yeah, I think it’s going to be personal for each one of us, but I’m just looking for the things that make us feel excited. That’s what we should be doing when we’re dieting.

Sonya: I wanted to ask again, about the idea of tricking ourselves, because I think in your book, you said that there’s pills that people will take that are placebo, and they know that they’re placebo when they’re taking them and they still get positive benefits. So how does that actually work when you’re tricking yourself? Because that kind of makes me mad to hear that.

David: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s actually quite amazing. So I think the important thing here is that often it seems to be well…let me go back. Open label placebos might have some benefit, just because we feel it’s a natural human response that when we’re ill, and then when we know that we’re being cared for when there’s a kind of ritual of healing, that is actually reassuring to the brain’s prediction machine that the immune system doesn’t have to go into overdrive any longer, because other kind of areas of our health needs are going to be fulfilled by these other people around us who are going to be bringing us food and water and caring for us, keeping us warm. So it kind of reduces the initial shock of the illness or injury that you’re having just to feel that you’ve been cared for. And open label placebos can do that because you feel even if someone gives you these pills, and you know they’re placebo pills is like an act of kind of healing, but might have some benefit. But personally, I don’t think that’s enough that might have bring about a bit of a benefit but what really seems to help is when you actually explain to people the science behind the expectation effect, and you tell them that the brain is building these predictions. These simulations can then start to change things about the body itself, like the actions of the immune system and the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain and the pain signaling. It’s a truth that if you take placebo pill, and you believe it’s morphine, then the brain actually starts to produce its own opioid drugs that can actually bring about real physiological pain relief, actually reducing the pain signaling in this kind of objective way. You teach people all of this stuff about the power of the prediction machine and the mind body connection. And they start to realize that well, to a certain extent, they are empowered to control things like the pain if their injured. And then you give them these placebo pills and it’s a constant reminder of that fact. So if you tell them take this placebo pill, and they know it’s placebo pill, but you say, take this twice a day, well, that’s a reminder of the brain’s own ability to bring about some of this healing response. And that, to me, seems to be how that would work. Now, the evidence that does work is actually becoming really good. So there are multiple studies, especially with pain relief, showing that it can have real effects even for people with chronic pain. They were given these pills, along with that presentation. After five days, they had experienced about a 30% drop in their symptoms, which is the clinical threshold for a new drug. If you had a new painkiller that could produce that level of pain relief, it could be patented, and sold. So it is powerful. And that’s been replicated. They’ve even found that some of these benefits can last for years afterwards. So it’s really well established. And it’s really exciting, because it could be a way that you could wean people off some of those addictive pain relief pills, and actually help them to go cold turkey if they suffer from some kind of addiction.

Sonya: I also thought it was so interesting, I’d never seen this before, in your book, how you talked about the way that the pill looks makes a different on how you perceive how it’s going to work for you.

David: It does, I mean it does seem that bigger pills are better, maybe taking two pills is better than taking one pill. All of these factors can be influential. And you can boost the placebo effect also by kind of adding kind of other stimuli. So having like a strong smell associated with pain relief. So if you first of all gave people their real pills, and it smelled very strongly of cardamom, for example, and then you give them placebo pills, open label placebo pills, that come with the same smell, that actually increases the placebo effects that they experienced that would improve the pain relief.

Sonya: It’s just so interesting. So unfortunately, we’re out of time here. I could talk for probably hours about all of the great information in your book and also about your other book that I’m excited to pick up it’s called can you tell me the title again?

David: The Intelligence Trap.

Sonya: So where can people find you in your work if they want to dig into this book and into The Intelligence Trap as well?

David: Yeah, so both of those books will be available on Amazon and should be available in Barnes and Noble, any kind of big bookstore should have them. But you can find links and like other material on my website, which is And I’m on Twitter at the D underscore A underscore Robson.

Sonya: All right, great. Well, thanks so much.

David: No, thank you.

Leave a Reply