How Suggestion Influences Behavior

Objects such as a lucky rabbit’s foot, a glass of wine, and a pill can all influence our perceptions and our behaviors. In this way, suggestion has the power affect one’s performance on a test, behavior at a dinner party, or the effects of a migraine.

A recent article penned by psychological scientists Maryanne Garry and Robert Michael of the Victoria School of Wellington in cooperation with Irving Kirsch of the Harvard Medical School and Plymouth University discussed the phenomenon of suggestion through examination of the relationship between suggestion, cognition and behavior. The article has been published in the June issue of Current Direction in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The two main authors studied the effects of suggestion on cognition and behavior. For his part, Kirsch focused on the effect of suggestion on clinical psychology. Garry delved into the effects of suggestion on human memory through funding from the Marsden Fund of New Zealand. According to Garry, “We realized that the effects of suggestion are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think.”

In many studies, research showed that deliberate suggestion can influence how people perform on learning and memory tasks, the products of choice and their response to supplements and medicines. This is commonly called the “placebo effect.”

This begs the question, how powerful and all-encompassing an effect suggestion have on an individual’s life? Individuals anticipate different responses in various situations, and these expectations have an equivalent automatic response that influence the outcome expected. Thus, the anticipation of a specific outcome and the consequent thoughts and actions assist in bringing that outcome to reality. (A self-fulfilling prophecy, as it were).

For instance, a shy individual may expect alcohol to give them liquid courage in a cocktail party. While some may blame the wine as doing the talking, it is clear that the expectations of the effect of the wine played a major role in becoming the life of the party.

It is not the deliberate suggestion which influences thoughts and behaviors, as even second-hand or non-deliberate suggestions can provide the same effect. The article states that simple observation of individuals can help them feel special, a manifestation of the Hawthorne Effect. This makes individuals work better and harder, which is a worrisome effect according to Garry. He says, “Because although we might then give credit to some new drug or treatment, we don’t realize that we are the ones who are actually wielding the influence.”

Garry further elevates the importance of unintentional suggestion and its important implications, saying, “In the scientific community, we need to be aware of – and control for – the suggestions we communicate to subjects. Recent research suggests that some of psychological science’s most intriguing findings may be driven, at least in part by suggestion and expectations. For example, a scientist who knows what the hypothesis of an experiment is might unwittingly lead subjects to produce the hypothesized effect – for reasons that have nothing to do with the experiment itself.”

The unintentional effects of suggestion aren’t just found in the laboratory as they are present in many real world situations such as medicine, education and criminal justice. Current research has established evidence for the phenomenon of suggestion but there is still a lot to learn about the suggestion, cognition and behavior. The authors pointed out, researchers still do not understand the boundaries and limitations of these effects.

As Garry points out, “If a ‘real’ treatment and a ‘suggestion’ lead to a similar outcome, what differentiates between the two? If we can harness the power of suggestion, we can improve people’s lives.”

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