Why do great players sometimes choke in key games? How do scientists explain the placebo effect, where merely believing in something makes it real? These questions about our minds and how they help and hurt our ambitions are explored in Chris Berdik’s new book, Mind over Mind: the surprising power of expectations.
The good news is Berdik excels at summarizing research studies, and he keeps his aim sharp. He focuses on various ways our expectations of things impact the results, from performance in sports, to medical treatments, to addiction. The key element in our psychology is anticipation and being able to manipulate what we anticipate.
Some of the studies I’d read about before, but there were many inquiries into placebo and sports psychology that were new to me, and memorable. The long uncomfortable relationship between science and placebo has some entertaining origins, which Berdik explores early on, and returns to at the close of the book. He closely examines the wild word of wines, and the circular relationships between what we’re told about wine and what we experience when we drink them.
I read the book in two sittings, over several hours, which is in many ways the best review I can possibly give. Towards the middle the focus on reporting on research dragged thin, but the closing chapters were strong and returned to the core theme of examinations of placebo.
I’d recommend Mind over Mind it to anyone trying to better understand their own habits, and the latest scientific understanding of how our brains and psychology help and hurt us in trying to live the lives we desire. The book isn’t structured around how-to advice, but there are plenty of lessons in each chapter that clarify erroneous beliefs about how our beliefs work, which if nothing else will lead to great conversations with your doctors, trainers and partners.
Some choice quotes:
On the useless and pretensious vocabulary wine reviewers use:
“the economist Roman Weil gave everyday wine drinkers a triplicate test—three glasses but only two wines, with one repeated. He also gave them descriptions of both wines written by the same critic to see if they could match words with wine. About half of the subjects could tell the two wines apart, which is somewhat better than chance. But among these folks who presumably had the keenest palates, only half correctly matched the wines with the critic’s descriptions. They would have done just as well by flipping a coin.”
About a study examining if chimpanzes evaluate quality the same ways we do:
There may be a good evolutionary reason for some irrational consumer behaviors, but when it comes to inferring quality from price tags, that’s all us.
On the near miss phenomenon among gamblers:
“…gambling addicts are suckers for the “near-miss” illusion—a lotto number off by one digit or a slot machine jackpot spoiled by the final spinner. Instead of seeing these outcomes as losses and feeling the normal, discouraging sting, addicts interpret them as encouraging signs that they’re mastering the game, or that luck is turning their way. They bet even more. The gambler’s perverse pleasure in the near-miss is based in a hardwired cognitive reflex. Our future-oriented brains habitually seek out patterns, because they help predict what’s coming next. Finding a pattern is like solving a little puzzle. Aha! Now we know what to expect. Our reward system gets pumped.
Our brains are so pattern happy that they find patterns even when we know they don’t exist. When people in brain scanners are explicitly told they’ll be watching a randomly generated series of squares and circles, their prefrontal and reward centers still react to runs of several squares or circles in a row, or a long sequence of alternating square, circle, square, circle, square. The gambling addict’s brain takes this reflex to an extreme. In the mind of a compulsive gambler, chance has personality and purpose. Luck can be both wooed and mastered”
About a better framework for thinking about failure:
“Dweck has since made a lifelong study of how people deal with failure. She has found that having the right expectations about failure can be crucial to ultimate success. In her research, Dweck contrasts “entity theory,” which says success is largely determined by the extent of one’s natural talents, and “incremental theory,” which says people define their abilities and limitations through effort. For lay audiences, Dweck uses the friendlier terms, “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.”
Get the book here: Mind over Mind: the surprising power of expectations.