Expectation and perception.

by Ryan Gregory, September 30th, 2013

Friday, January 12th, 2007. A metro station in Washington, DC. Around 8:00AM, morning rush hour. A man in jeans, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball hat began playing the violin as the busy commuters passed by on their way to work. Nearly 1,100 people walked past as he played a total of six classical pieces over a period of about 45 minutes. Some tossed change or small bills into his open violin case. Most took no real notice at all. A pretty common scene for a busy subway station in a busy city at the busiest hour of the day.

But this was no ordinary busker. The man playing the violin was Joshua Bell, one of the most highly regarded concert violinists in the world, playing on a violin that was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari and valued at $3.5 million. Only days before, Bell had played a sold-out concert where ticket prices averaged $100. And yet, in this context, almost no one paid any attention.

This little social experiment, which was devised by Bell and The Washington Post, showed how important expectation can be in shaping our perceptions. Nobody expects Joshua Bell to be playing in a metro station, so the experience of hearing him barely registers.

The same effect can occur in the opposite direction: where there is expectation that something significant will happen, and this shapes one’s subsequent perception — even to the point of affecting people’s mental, physical, or physiological state.

Case in point, true believers fainting when a charismatic preacher waves his arm at the audience:

This phenomenon is also alarmingly common in the martial arts. Often it seems that the students of a particular teacher have an expectation that a certain technique will have a specific effect, and then lo and behold, it does.

But what happens when you try such techniques on someone who doesn’t have an expectation that it will work?

Usually nothing…

…or worse.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of “faking” the effect, but rather a demonstration of the power of expectation — either based on the belief of the student that the technique works, or the subconscious effects of social expectation from the rest of the audience.

If you want to know if your technique is really effective or if it only works on believers, try it on a resisting partner or someone who doesn’t know what is supposed to happen.

And always think about what explanation is most likely. One, that your student is faking, or reacting to your cues, or is being affected by expectation. Or two, that you actually possess magical powers. This is one case where it really does pay to be a skeptic.

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