Book Review
Title: "Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations"
Author: Chris Berdik
Publisher: Current, 2012; 288 pages; $26.95

For hundreds of years, the intersections of our visions and our realities, our beliefs for the future and what actually comes to pass, the things we say and our state of affairs have long fascinated theorists and researchers in a strange mix and wide range of fields, from medicine to religion to sports performance.

Neuropsychologists now know that our brains fill in the blanks of our senses to create our perceptions. But the power of our expectations to craft our reality has tended, through the generations, to be perceived with skepticism, distrust and the imprimatur of gullibility at best and occult or demonic influence at worst.

Journalist Chris Berdik, in his new book, "Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations," surfaces the history, science and anecdotes around the power of imagination, expectations, placebos and anticipation to create powerful conclusions, in order to leverage this power for good and avoid the pitfalls to which they render us susceptible.

Here are a few fundamental truths about the power of expectations that Berdik surfaces in "Mind Over Mind":

1. "The expectations of want are more powerful than the here and now of liking." The objects of our desire and the experience of desire itself are not, as we might think, the same thing, according to Berdik. Wanting more powerfully activates the brain’s reward system, which motivates us to work hard to achieve our goals, but can also snowball into extremes like addiction and compulsive behaviors.

What Berdik calls "too much wanting" holds the destructive potential to "blind us to dangers, diminish our performance, and make us work doggedly for what we don’t even like."

Fortunately, if we work at the level of expectations, we can actually harness the power of expectations to promote our behavior-change efforts. For example, consciously linking our thoughts of spinach to expectations of health rather than just wrestling against our taste expectations of a Snickers bar is one way to manage our brains’ reward centers to further the behaviors we want to promote.

2. "The future is rosier than the past." The fact that the brain is the most engaged and attentive when imagining happy future events, Berdik argues, accounts for homeowners’ optimism despite past market crashes — and optimism is, in fact, a primary and necessary driver of the economy.

Even after learning their true statistical likelihood of experiencing various traumas, research subjects were much more likely to correct their earlier forecasts of their own probability of everything from developing Alzheimer’s to having their car stolen if the hard numbers suggested they should be more optimistic.

While it’s tempting to try to seek ways to correct for this overoptimism, it is precisely this element of human nature that, over a lifetime, "keeps us moving, doing and propagating even though we know nothing lasts."

3. "Having the right expectations about failure can be crucial to ultimate success." Berdik relates the lifelong research of psychologist Carol Dweck, who contrasts those individuals who have a fixed mindset (the belief that "people are born with a certain mix of strengths and weakness") with those who possess a growth mindset (the belief that "people define their abilities and limitations through effort").

Because the growth mindset focuses on learning and sees failure as an opportunity to improve, children who failed but were lauded for their effort were much more likely to try again than kids who failed but had been praised for being smart. (In conversations with researchers, the latter group was much more likely to lie about their scores and ask about how other kids scored than the kids who had been instilled with a growth mindset who were more likely to flat-out ask researchers for the tips to solve the problem they’d been given.)

Berdik cites this phenomenon as partially responsible for the failure of increases to self-esteem to create increased academic performance. In reality, he writes, "[h]igh self-esteem makes us overestimate the role our talents and intelligence play in our accomplishments [and can] disrupt the balance between our expectations for success and our ability to achieve it." Rather, Berdik says, the beneficial sort of self-esteem we should be instilling in our children and promoting in ourselves "isn’t focused on who [we] are but on who [we] may become."

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