Near Yangshuo, southern China, there is a hill known as the Mountain of the Moon. It has 800 steps and in summer is an exhausting climb, necessitating several stops along the way. Water is sold by local people to the tourists on the way up. The vendors are mostly elderly people, many are tiny, thin women, and they haul dozens of bottles of heavy water up the steps countless times a day in the searing heat, dangling from a yoke. They not only keep pace with the young tourists they sell to (there are no elderly Westerners on the hike), but often overtake them. Their physiology is no different from ours; what is different is their expectations of their abilities.
Expectations are a powerful feature of our psychology. Far from being mere thoughts about what might happen, sociologists such as Merton and Thomas have shown that expectations lead to behaviours and attitudes that cause the expectations to occur. Whether or not an expectation is based in reality has little or no effect on the outcome, since if someone has convinced themselves that something is true, or will occur, events will follow their conviction to their logical conclusion. The Thomas theorem states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. According to Thomas, our behaviour is often determined by our perception of a situation we are in, and the meaning we ascribe to the situation. A young person with back ache will look for recent activity which may have led to the pain whereas the older person, even if they have engaged in the same activity, is more likely to ascribe the pain to advancing age. Once a person is convinced of something, they will take actions which are affected by their subjective perceptions – in the above case this could lead to a reduction in physical activity, which will then reduce fitness and lead to the corollary of expectations – the self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are many examples of self-fulfilling prophecies in society. A bank run is one, or in interpersonal relationships, a jealous woman who reacts strongly to her partner’s contacts with other women so that eventually he feels so stifled he does indeed stray. A famous example includes a study where teachers were told arbitrarily that random students were “going to blossom”. Oddly, those random students actually ended the year with significant improvements. In economics the life cycle theory shows that consumers pace their spending in accordance with how long they expect to live.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is based on “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1948). To count, a belief must have consequences of a peculiar kind: consequences that make reality conform to the initial belief.
Thomas also stated that any definition of a situation will influence the present. After a series of such definitions, these perceptions gradually influence our mind-set and personality, so that our reality morphs into exactly what we had defined it to be. Is there any aspect of the way we regard our bodies which is causing a self-fulfilling prophecy?
In the new age movement, the power of expectations is known as the law of attraction, a belief that the universe will adjust itself to fit our expectations of the future. Though many have found this to be true, there is no scientific evidence as such. However, there is plenty of evidence for the placebo effect, where expectations that a medicine, however ineffective in reality, will work, leads to an enhancement of the immune system and the curing of disease.
It may seem that when we reach late “middle age”, even if we have achieved our goals, the decline of the body must then be immediately addressed. It is as though we had a ledger in our minds indicating how long we have left. But what if the first 50 years were just a warm-up, and we could then return to the mental set point we had at 25, while maintaining all the knowledge and life experience…in other words, add on another full lifetime starting now? Would this change in attitude actually add those years to our life?
Fake it till you make it is not bad advice, although if we expect to stay in good physical and mental health up to our first century and to live well beyond there is no reason to believe this is fake. For some people this is already happening (see video page).
The atmosphere was souring by the minute. One woman’s perception was that the school was doing its best, that there were far worse situations in other schools, in other areas of the country, and that more discipline would lead to abuse. The other woman snorted with disdain at the degree of ignorance in this perception. Letting children run wild in a school was the reason why society was going to the dogs. The implication in the argument was that one knew better how to raise children than the other. The atmosphere remained strained for the rest of the day.
What happens when we hear or see something unfamiliar? First we seek all the information we can detect, and want to learn more. Second we compare what we see with what we have seen and known in the past. Third we seek to categorise, accepting and rejecting different pieces of information through a process of increasingly intense selective filtering, until we hit upon a conclusion. Thus we categorise and interpret sensory information in a way that favours one interpretation over another. In this image of a vase, young children see dolphins.
Individuals reach different conclusions about media events according to their preconceived ideas. In this way an identical event may lead different political parties to adopt diametrically opposing views on action. In one experiment, students told they were consuming alcohol became gradually more drunk in their behaviour, even though no alcohol was present. In another, subjects were given an article to read about flu and then shown pictures of people. They then identified possible carriers of the virus – who turned out to be obese people, foreigners and the elderly. Thus this image of a horse, is not a horse at all when viewed sideways.
The process of selective perception may also vary in the individual according to his or her prior emotional state. In related research, participants who had agreed to walk on their campus carrying a large, embarrassing sign underestimated the distance to be crossed. This was a result of trying to cope with the contradiction of doing something unpleasant of their own free will. In fact the way the brain interprets stimuli cannot be trusted. If we plunge a cold hand into a bowl of lukewarm water it will feel warmer than if our hands were at room temperature. Another example of how perceptions can vary can be found in language. We may listen to a foreign language and hear only the music and the sounds as a long, uninterrupted melody, but when we learn the language there is an Aha! moment as the sounds separate first into words and then into meaning. In the header image above, among the old women is a girl no more than twenty. When you spot her you will think again about helping her up the steps.
Each of us tends to believe our view of the world is the correct one, but this is not the case. We see the world through a filter of our own thoughts, experiences and beliefs. When we express an opinion, we are describing our own selves, and if anyone disagrees with our perception we feel an affront and immediately assume they are deluded. This applies to our own view of ageing too. The problem is our view of ageing describes how we see ourselves as older people, and this is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, for anything else would mean accepting the humiliating idea that our perception was wrong.
Selective perception has major implications for our health. Our perceptions of how long we have to live directly affect our physiology. Let us favour the Aha! moment more often. Opening our minds to other possibilities will enrich life; believing we will live long after the age of eighty in a state of mental and physical fitness will increase the probability this perception will come true.
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