The power of expectation
Does what you expect determine your reality? Melissa Powney considers how our expectations of children and young people might influence their success.
This article was written by Melissa Powney, Team Leader, Professional Education Services at the Australian Childhood Foundation.
Have you ever considered how your expectations influence your reality? It is an important concept to reflect upon, as for every predetermined expectation we have about our future, our brain (or more specifically the Insula) anticipates and shapes our perception of the world around us.
Is the world what you think of it?
In 2011, Jonathan Zadra and Gerald Clores conducted research on emotion and perception. Specifically, they were looking to discover the role of affectual information on perception. During their study, they found that the individual emotional connections we each assign to specific items in our world influence us to perceive the world differently from each other. In fact, we perceive items of interest as visibly larger than they really are. For example: if you are an avid gardener then regularly used gardening equipment such as a shovel will appear more dominantly to you in a picture, than to someone uninterested in gardening. Furthermore, children in low socioeconomic settings in Boston were found to perceive coins to be larger than their wealthier counterparts.
Emotional connections not only shape our expectations and reality but we are also now aware that our expectations shape both how we ‘see’ the world as well as how we ‘feel’ physically beyond our mood state. Our expectations influence our reality, and so too our entire body, impacting either positively or negatively on our physiology.
In addition to understanding the impact of our thinking and expectations, we also now know that these impacts are open to being misled by those whose authority on a topic we trust. A recent behavioural study explored the legitimacy of patients’ experiencing the opposite to a ‘placebo effect’, eloquently titled ‘the Nocebo effect’. The experiment summarised that when patients are told about potential negative side effects from their doctor or hear accounts from others who claim to have experienced negative impacts such as nausea, the patient’s cognition and physiology is influenced to expect a negative outcome.
Whilst it is an important and essential process for our brains to anticipate what may happen in the future and make adjustments accordingly, it is easy to see how this might also become problematic when the information used to make these adjustments is fictional or incorrect. Just like the patients in this Nocebo study, we may also experience legitimate pain and discomfort due to outcome anticipation formed through the use of fictional stories.
Origins of outcome anticipation
We first learn how to anticipate positive or negative outcomes through our relationships with our key attachment figure(s). The parent-infant dyad entails the child’s mirror neurons working in attunement with their parents’ as the infant learns to mirror or match how their parent interprets, responds and makes meaning about the world. This process works well in healthy dyads but can become particularly problematic for development when the key attachment figure is clinically depressed, affected by drugs and alcohol, managing their own trauma or experiencing another condition inhibiting their attunement with the child. Without these experiences to make sense of their world, the child can be left feeling confused, unsafe and without a guide for meaning-making.
Children who have experienced abuse and/or neglect in the early years of life often experience interruptions to attunement with their primary caregiver. In turn, they can internalise their distress, which causes physiological and emotional pain. Then, as they develop, they lack the frameworks to make sense of what they see and experience.
In the teenage years, we continue to look to the perception of others, especially our close family and peers. And again, the health of those we look toward plays a considerable role in the impact of these interactions. We only have to reflect on the vast implications of bullying in our schools, or to the complexities of family violence that contribute to the number of young people attempting or committing suicide each year to understand that when the ‘others’ in our world do not behave and respond in healthy, attuned or supportively responsive ways we are left vulnerable at best and severely impacted at worst.
The Australian Childhood Foundation understands that relationships are at the heart of children’s experiences. This is true both in the trauma and also in recovery. Healing begins with positive meaningful relationships. I would extend upon this and emphasise that given what we know about the role of outcome anticipation, and the importance of ‘good information’ for good outcomes, that the beliefs of parents, carers and professionals with regard to children can have a significant impact on their outcomes. If we provide belief and project our positive expectation that children, young people and for that matter adults, can exceed, heal and develop with success, then we will, in turn, contribute to outcome anticipation, positive wellbeing and their own, personal, expectation of success that lies in the wake of their future.
 Clore, G & Zadra, J 2011 ‘Emotion and Perception: The Role of Affective Information’ Wiley Interdisciplinary reviews Cognitive Science, Nov-Dec; 2(6): 676-685.
 Faasse, K., Yeom, B., Parkes, B., Kearney, J., & Petrie, K.J. (2018). The role of social modelling, gender, and empathy in nocebo responding. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. doi: 10.1093/abm/kax025