#57 - How your expectations can impact your children with award-winning science writer David Robson

February 20, 2024
David Robson

Episode Summary

This week on The Aro Podcast, Joey is joined by award-winning science writer David Robson to unravel concepts from his book 'The Expectation Effect.' From the placebo effect vs. nocebo effect to the impact of catastrophizing thoughts and the setback effect, David provides insights into how our mindset shapes our lives. Joey draws parallels between 'The Expectation Effect' and the parenting experience, diving into how parents' thoughts and expecatations can impact their children. The conversation moves on to the role of social media in children's brains, exploring both its negative and positive aspects. David also shares a sneak peek of his upcoming book, 'The Laws of Connection,' which sheds light on the importance of social connections and the steps we can take to build better relationships for a more fulfilling life.

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Episode Transcript

David Robson (00:00):

We can see our feelings of fatigue as a kind of sign of failure when we're exercising. It can be really frustrating. You want to be fitter than you are, and you feel like if the exertion is really hurting, then it's a reminder you haven't achieved that goal. But you can also spin that like you did and emphasize that actually is a sign of growth. You're never going to get better if you always go on the slowest speed on the treadmill or you quite limply just go for a few burpees without pushing yourself to the max. So the pain is a sign of growth, and the research shows that once you recognize that, you're actually more likely to feel that flood of endorphins that makes us feel so good after exercise.

Joey Odom (00:54):

Welcome back to The Aro Podcast. Hey, it's Joey Odom, Co-Founder of Aro. You are in for a treat. You're in for a treat for your ears. It's like your eardrums are going to get a little hug today from the voice of David Robson. David Robson is a science writer. He is from England, and he has written a book that I completely digested in about 48 hours called the Expectation Effect. David writes about what happens when we change our mindset and how that manifests not only in all around us, but really even physically in our bodies. And this is not a hype up book, this is not a will yourself into doing something. This is scientifically based on what happens when you expect and how your mindset can change everything. He talks about the physical manifestations of things like the placebo effect or how the mirror system around us when the people around you, how they shape and form, how you view the world, and even how you can do that yourself.

So it's a great book. I say it's a science book. It is, but it's very, very readable. But I read this book as a parenting book. To me, this is how can we watch how we talk about ourselves? How can we watch our catastrophizing thoughts, for example, and the way we talk in front of our kids and maybe break the cycle of the way that we've been thinking, the patterns that we've been thinking in. David also talks about social media with kids and how some of this, the upward comparisons that we make all around us, we all struggle with us, but especially for the mind of a young child and how that's really the thief of joy. So this is something you're going to be able to apply to your life, but you're really going to be able to apply it in your relationships, in your parenting, and you can create the world around you, the reality around you, just from your own mindset and expectation.

And then we talk about something called the setback effect. And this is for anybody who maybe has a goal or a New Year's resolution that they haven't quite stuck to. What happens is when we slip on that, we usually just go down a road of quitting that resolution and he proposes a different path for that and what we can do differently. So much of this is around self-compassion of saying to yourself, maybe I did slip, but that doesn't change who I am. My performance is not tied to my identity. This was good for me. This whole episode was very, very good for me, and he has some great lines in there that I want you to really listen to. For now, sit back, relax, enjoy this ear hug from David Robson.

Gang, I want everyone to turn on their prediction machines and expect an amazing episode. Our guest jumped from the river cam to the future, the BBC future and is now one of the top science writers on earth. He knows why smart people make dumb mistakes. He helps you change the world by changing your mindset. And while he's no Bobby, he will soon be laying down the laws of connection. We'll talk placebos and no Sibos because you see bros. Our guest covers it all. We're recording on Valentine's Day and you're about to fall in love with them. Please welcome our guest, David Robson.

David Robson (04:12):

Thanks so much for having me. That was quite the introduction.

Joey Odom (04:16):

I will say it was a challenge figuring out what to rhyme with placebos and no.

David Robson (04:23):

Yeah, you nailed it. Do you

Joey Odom (04:24):

Sees? Well, it is great to see you. It is Valentine's Day. We're recording. I am wearing pink, so I'm in the mood. And like I said, I have fallen in love with your work. I've been just absolutely absorbing the expectation effect. It's truly, and I think for the listener, this may be the most important podcast we've done because of how seismically this can shift people's lives. So I'm excited to talk about it. To begin though, we connected after I read an article of yours in the Wall Street Journal. We're going to talk about that at the end. This is all about if for people who have been on you have these goals and aspirations, especially at the beginning of the year, what happens when you get a setback. So that's a little teaser for the end, but let's dive in and starting with the expectation effect, will you tell us, you are a science writer, so this is not, I'll let you finish, but this is not a hype up book or a motivational book. This is rooted in science, how your mindset can shape the life you actually experience. Will you give us some background on how you stumbled upon this and a little bit of the background on the book?

David Robson (05:39):

Right. Yeah, I mean, so I think we all have this kind of intuition that our mindsets do have an amazing impact on our life, but the challenge is really to know when does that work and how can we apply it and how can we avoid setting our expectations too high so that we're still rational with our thinking? That's really the aim of the expectation effect and what I showed here is that the expectation effect is real and that our beliefs can create self-fulfilling prophecies through changes to our behavior, to our perception and to our physiology. So no, it's very much a well-studied, very robust phenomenon. Like you said, it's grounded in science. And I first came across this idea when I was working at the BBC and researching a piece on the placebo effect and its evil twin, the nocebo effect, which you mentioned so that the placebo effect is if you have positive expectations that a medical treatment will work, often the outcomes are better.

Well, the no placebo effect is just the opposite. If you expect to become ill, often you experience the symptoms of that sickness. So it could be headaches, nausea, muscle pain, all of these complaints that we might have that could be side effects of drugs or it could be an expectation of sickness after your friends have all fallen ill after eating out at the same restaurant. So I was writing this piece at the same time. I was going through quite a difficult period in my own life. I started taking some antidepressant pills. My doctor warned me as their obliged to do that. Some of the side effects of those pills could be having really bad headaches. And the first day I took them and for about a week afterwards I was having these migraines that made it very difficult for me to work. But by writing this book about this article about the nocebo effect, I did start to consider whether it was actually my expectations that were causing those symptoms.

So I went into the scientific literature and I found that actually for this particular brand of antidepressant pills, what you find is that people do report headaches, but in the clinical trials, people were also reporting headaches. Even when they were taking the dummy placebo pills, it seemed to be that for the vast majority of people, more than 90% of people, the headaches were actually the result of expectations. And that didn't mean they were imaginary. I certainly felt a lot of pain. It felt no different from any other headaches I've had in my life. And that's because what we can see is that actually through this SIBO effect, there is a physiological change to your brain. Your expectations are causing the brain to become extra sensitive to pain. And it's doing things like changing the vasculature of the blood vessels within the brain that can actually contribute to the feeling of the migraine.

So it is very real, but it didn't have a biological a purely origin. It wasn't because of some kind of chemical reaction with the pills I was taking. And so with that realization, I kind of opened my mind up to the possibility that this pain might just go away naturally if I stopped focusing on it so much. And within a few hours it had actually disappeared. And that really just made me think how powerful our expectations could be. And so I kept on gathering all of these papers that I came across, and over a few years I had a huge document that seemed to divide itself very neatly into these 10 separate chapters. And that was when I really thought, I want to tell this story. I want to share what I've learned with a bigger audience.

Joey Odom (09:40):

And it's, by the way, anybody listening, I'm sure at this point is slightly skeptical because what you just described with the migraines, that doesn't seem possible. But you go through in the book and it's extraordinarily well researched, and I think you have about 40 pages of notes and citations at the end. So no one's going to accuse you of plagiarism at the end of this, which is good. So maybe you could be the Harvard president as a result of this. So you do cite things so very clearly, but it's study after study after study of scientific research documenting this exact thing. And you said something a second ago, I want to make sure I heard that right. Did you say that 90% of people, even on the placebo in the headache study, 90% of people reported headaches just by knowing that there was a possibility of headaches? Did I hear that correctly?

David Robson (10:35):

So I think that's kind of what I said, but I think the meaning wasn't quite clear. So I think 90% of the people, so you might have nine people in the placebo trial who for every nine people in the placebo trial who reported headaches, you would have 10 people in the taking the real drug. So it suggests that of those 10 people, 90% were suffering the nocebo effect, not a direct chemical effect of the drug.

Joey Odom (11:07):

This is the dummy question. How on earth is that possible? How is it that what we expect, what we anticipate actually manifests physiologically?

David Robson (11:18):

I mean, it does seem miraculous. And so first of all, I'd say I'm not claiming that you can do anything with your mind to your body. It's not like there had been some kind of claims that you can cure cancer just by visualizing the tumor shrinking. That is not what I'm claiming at all because as in my opinion, there's no plausible biological mechanism by which that could occur. But just because those kind of miracles don't happen doesn't mean that lots of amazing things can't be controlled by the mind. And so what we know is that our mindset is really important in preparing the body for the challenges ahead. That's actually kind of how the brain evolved was to be kind of preemptive. That's why it's called a prediction machine. One of the fundamental roles that it plays in its processing is to build simulations of the world and then to guess what's coming next.

So from those simulations, from those guesses of what's going to happen to us, the brain is helping to calibrate things like your hormonal balance, like the precise level of cortisol, the stress hormone or adrenaline that you'll be experiencing. It's doing things like through the actions of the nervous system and then the immune system. It's doing things like shaping the amount of inflammation you might have in your body at any one time preparing you for illness. It's changing the actions of the digestive system. We've all experienced that if you start thinking about your favorite food, you might find that your stomach starts rumbling and your mouth starts watering. That's just beginning to release the digestive enzymes that will help you to derive the nutrients from that food. So I don't think any of this is magical. We experience it all the time. The expectation effect is more about how looking at specific scenarios in which we might not have considered how the prediction machine could be influencing outcomes, and then learning how we can shape our mindsets to make the most of those effects.

Joey Odom (13:23):

And one, this is a different take on placebo than I had ever heard because I think all of us think like, okay, a placebo is you're being tricked into believing you're taking something. But what you talk about is even knowing it's a placebo, it still has equal effect. And did I get that right? And will you explain that how we can, again, how you can even know that it's a placebo, but it can still have a similar effect to the actual medicine?

David Robson (13:51):

So there's lots of ways that this might happen. One is that just there's a kind of medical ritual and being given the pill and taking it, that feels quite reassuring and that reassurance can itself have a biological impact. So it can do things like trigger the release of endorphins. It can reduce the release of these neurotransmitters, one of which is called CCK, that amplify pain signaling because it's telling you that you're being cared for and that you are in that it's like your body can kind of reduce some of its natural defenses because you're now receiving support from a medical professional or from your community. So that is one way that it could immediately improve some of your symptoms, including the pain that you're feeling, potentially even things like inflammation of a wound. Then there's another mechanism which is called conditioning, and that is where the body through this prediction machine, through the brain's processing starts to associate certain outcome with a certain pill.

So if you are receiving an opioid drug, the brain actually starts to produce its own opioids to kind of amplify the effect of that drug. And so then if you receive the pill, it kind of just triggers that a bit like Pavlov spells with the dogs. It just kind of triggers the same response. And so actually if you take away the pill and just give a dummy pill, that kind of non-conscious conditioning is coming into play. And we can amplify that with these open-label placebos by doing things like associating the real pain killing drug with a particular smell. So I think in one study it was this very strong smell of cardamon that these people had to sniff as they took their opioid drugs. Then they took the real drugs away, they took the placebo pill and sniffed this really strong cardamon smell. And then sure enough, they did start to experience almost the same level of pain relief. So there are lots of ways that we can use the placebo effect without it being deceptive. And actually it's really encouraging for ways to wean people off of those addictive drugs is to actually try to use this to slowly get them off, get them off their pills, and to kind of empower them to realize that they can actually often manage their pain themselves through psychological techniques.

Joey Odom (16:31):

Yeah, the thing I like about how you wrote the book is you began with the physical manifestations of the prediction machine of your expectations. But for most of us, it really is the life we experience. Our experience of life is more, it takes up a lot more time than our physical ailments and pains. And so you transition this really into really how we experience life beyond this. And I read this book, I'm a dad of a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old. I read this book as a parenting book because it made me think about what are the ways that I am living and experiencing things. And this is really hard because it's what are the subtle, closely held beliefs that I have that may be manifesting themselves negatively, and what are those other things? What are the things that I could really double down in showing this to my kids and helping them build good expectations and high expectations?

And some of this is counterintuitive when you talk about the nocebo effect, you talk about this almost when the doctor says, Hey, this shot's going to hurt. It feels like it's bracing you to make the pain better, but it actually makes the pain worse versus just preparing you for something good. So within the nocebo, you talk about, and I love this and think so many people, especially parents really go through this and experience this is catastrophizing thoughts. Will you talk about that concept in and of itself, catastrophizing thoughts and maybe how that could play out and then ways that we could reset our expectations in and then maybe the result of doing that when it comes to catastrophizing thoughts?

David Robson (18:12):

Yeah, I think the idea of catastrophizing, it's kind of really at the heart of a lot of the expectation effects, but it creates a negative expectation effect. And that is just when we get into those negative loops of thinking where you are not just acknowledging the discomfort that you're feeling in the moment, but you're also then building these ever kind of escalating scenarios of what might happen in the future. And you're often doing it with these not very nuanced, very, you can talk to yourself with absolute confidence about these terrible things that you think are going to happen. So with pain, it will be like, I just cannot cope with the pain. I will never get better. There must be something seriously wrong with me. If I'm feeling this kind of pain, I'm going to die. All of these things, even if you don't have the evidence behind that, you just go down this kind of really, really upsetting route of thinking and you'd ruminate on those excessively.

Now what the research shows is that that makes the pain itself a lot worse. So it actually increases the expression of that pain amplifying neurotransmitter. CCK. One of the researchers mentioned in her papers that it's like pouring gasoline on a fire. It's actually just increasing the pain and all of its consequences so much worse. It's a physiological level. Now, I think if you are trying to apply the expectation effect to help yourself, what you don't have to do is you've badly injured yourself and you're telling yourself, no, no, it's fine. It's fine. I'm just going to pretend I haven't been hurt. There's no point in deceiving yourself. But you can try to ask yourself if there's the evidence behind those catastrophizing thoughts that you're kind of just whether you are basically questioning whether your assumptions are correct. So you might start to think, I'm never going to get better from this pain.

It's never going to go away. Well, you can ask yourself in the past, have I felt similar levels of pain? Maybe you're in the middle of a migraine, have you had a terrible migraine? And then has it vanished hours or days later that it is kind of finite and that it can get better eventually? And just reminding yourself of that can help to break that negative cycle. Similarly, you can remind yourself that actually often the amount of pain you're feeling is not always related to the severity of the injury, and your pain is actually there as a signal that's trying to protect you. It's trying to get you to safety and make sure that you don't exacerbate the injury. So if you tell yourself, I'm listening to that signal, I'm now in safety, I'm now protecting myself so I don't have to keep on feeling that same level of pain, well, that's another way of reducing this catastrophizing thought that you are inevitably going to deteriorate. And that can be very beneficial too. That's really what I mean about breaking this vicious cycle of catastrophization. There's a lot of research behind this looking at short-term pain and long-term chronic pain. It can be really beneficial for people who undergo cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain to really be able to pin down what their particular flavor of catastrophization is and to find useful ways to break those thoughts. And that has a real impact on the symptoms they feel.

Joey Odom (21:58):

Do you think that parents are really, I've noticed this. It feels like this is a very easy thing to perpetuate, even just with the way we talk about ourselves in front of our kids. Do you think as parents, maybe let me ask it this way. What controlled do you believe we have as parents from a very young age with our kids about the way we talk about situations and catastrophize? Do you think that that's something that you observe in parents doing then it just kind of continues that cycle on with the next generation?

David Robson (22:29):

Yeah, absolutely. Because kids kind of internalize the dialogues that they might've had with their parents. And I've experienced this myself. My mom, I think, did have a tendency to catastrophize, and then it took me a while to break that cycle myself. But there's also a huge amount of research examining this. And so you can look up children who've gone through traumatic experiences. It could have been a car crash, it could have been an injury at school, a house fire and psychologists have, they've spoken to these families as soon as the accident happened and then followed their progress later on. And what they found was that parents who really catastrophized a lot, if they were telling their children and the researchers things like, oh my son, he's never going to be the same again after this. And if they kind adopt this avoidant kind of attitude where they're like, well, you fell out of that tree, you are never going to climb a tree again because it's so dangerous.

That actually perpetuates the fears. And those kids are actually much more likely to develop the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder six months down the line compared to parents who might've taken a more nuanced kind of view to the events. So then they're not denying the fact that it was scary that the child was hurt. But they also try to focus on other elements too. The fact that it might be a very rare event that is not likely to happen. Again, the fact that there were first responders who came and supported them immediately, the kindness of the people in the hospitals, all of these kinds of things can just help the child to process the event in a more balanced way. And then that is protective against the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And we can see the same, even with very small things like a kid having their tonsils taken out, if a kid, if the catastrophize the pain, that kid actually remembers it as being a far more traumatic experience than if the parents just help to shift their attention to some of the other elements of the experience beside the fear and the discomfort.

Joey Odom (24:55):

One of my favorite, one of our favorite parenting experts is Dr. Becky. And she talks about how it's not necessarily the memory itself, it's the memory of the memory is the thing that continues to perpetuate and exactly what you're saying, and it's such a brilliant way to put it. And this is just a note for the listener. Really a note for myself as you were talking about that, I was thinking about all the ways that I've done this poorly in the last 15 years of being a parent. But you talk about this a lot, and we'll get to this in a little bit, but this is just a note for right now to have some self-compassion to recognize that in a similar way here, you could actually catastrophize this in trying to avoid catastrophizing thing. You could catastrophize this instance and just say, oh, I've messed this up so much. Gosh, I've really wounded my kids, as opposed to saying, Hey, I've missed this a few times. What a cool opportunity to reset right now. So that's just a note for the listener. If you're feeling like, I felt I was starting to feel a little tinge of guilt, and I think it's important to just say, this is okay to not go down a bad route there.

David Robson (26:02):

Yeah, no, a hundred percent agree with that. Yeah,

Aro Member (26:11):

I know this isn't just me who struggles with this. We're getting screen time alerts every Sunday afternoon from your Apple iPhone and some of my friends and I will share our screen time with each other. How'd you do this week? Because it's something we want to minimize. But when I look at my screen time sometimes I go, that's not all me just scrolling Instagram, we use it for other things that are really important, but there's a lot of that too. So how do we minimize the screen time but still use this amazing tool that we have at our fingertips? That's a blessing. I don't want my iPhone to be a curse, but sometimes it is and sometimes it's a blessing. So when we found Aro, I mean it shipped so quick and we started using it almost immediately and we have not stopped using it. And we took a bunch of trips this summer, but one trip I was like, I think I'm going to bring the box with us because I was just like, we're taking this trip to go spend time together. I don't want to be more on my phone. And so I was like, I need to pack that in the van.

Joey Odom (27:03):

We love hearing stories from the Aro community. The one you just heard actually comes from our Voices of Aro episodes where I sit down with Aro members and they share about their stories and their lives with Aro. Make sure to check out the Voices of Aro episodes, and if you're a member who would like to share your own story with Aro, please email us stories@goaro.com.

This ties into the mirror system that you talk about, the mirror system where basically we take, and we will use the example of kids, we take the physical and mental states of others around us, and we build that into our own simulation, how we experience life. People who are high in empathy can do this because you feel other people's pains, and so it's almost like you take what others are experiencing and make it your own. Will you explain, explain the mirror system and we've talked about it, and then I have a couple follow up questions on that.

David Robson (28:02):

Yeah, so I mean the mirror system is one of the brain systems that feeds into the prediction machine, as I call it, it's helping you. It's just another way of using the information around you to build those simulations of what might be going on in your own body and how to deal with potential threats. So I think the obvious example in which this could have been very beneficial in evolution is, like I said earlier, if you've had a meal and then one of your acquaintances becomes very sick, immediately the sight of their discomfort and their vomiting or whatever makes you feel nauseous and might, if you have that feeling strong enough, it might make you start to throw up as well. Now it's not pleasant, but the fact is that by doing that, you're actually rid yourself of the potential pathogens that might have infected your friend, even if you don't actually have them in your own body.

It's like a protective mechanism. Similarly, if loads of people are scratching themselves, it makes sense for you to start being extra sensitive to anything that could be a potential insect bug that might be giving you an infection too, so you can avoid that danger. So that's how the mirror system worked in the past. But obviously then it does have implications today, and one of them is that it can contribute to these cases of mass psychogenic illness where you find relatively large groups of people can all come down with the same symptoms even if there's nothing actually threatening in their environment. It's one of my favorite examples of all these school kids in Portugal who had all been watching this teen soap opera strawberries and sugar and a kid there had this mystery illness that it was like some mystery virus that was making them faint and throw up and stuff.

And then one day at school, I guess just one kid kind of started to manifest those symptoms that maybe they're taking it a little bit too seriously, but all of their friends were also primed to start believing in this too. So they quickly started spreading through not just a single school, but through multiple schools across the country and health experts who unsurprisingly hadn't been watching the team soap opera, were really perplexed and they were looking for all kinds of biological explanations, things like could it be like a poisonous caterpillars in the school yards, all of these kinds of things. But eventually it did become apparent that it was psychogenic. It was coming from this contagious naba effect, and that ultimately all comes down to the mirror system that's kind of spreading those symptoms between people.

Joey Odom (31:03):

That's just amazing. And again, these are actual physical manifestations. It's not as if everybody got together and said, Hey, we're all going to do this. It's just you begin to observe and you begin to create a reality around you, which makes me think again about taking it to the home. You actually talk about how important your social circle is, especially for kids too, who you're forming yourself around because that's going to be your view of the world. And I think on, I got it again, I'll reference Dr. Becky again. Dr. Becky talks about the most generous interpretation when you're in a relationship, when something happens with your kids or your spouse or your partner, you have to, okay, what's the most generous interpretation of this? Maybe they weren't actually being dismissive or rude, maybe they had a rough day, and how can I help them through that? But in doing that, in having the most generous interpretation, you can create the world around you by being that outwardly and people will begin to mirror that. So there's the negative side, again, the psychogenic illnesses, but isn't it true that you can also create that positive world around you by initiating that yourself?

David Robson (32:09):

Yeah, no, it absolutely is true. And I think that's what I love about this research is that actually one, the research kind of shows that the best way to apply expectation effects to yourself is actually to share it with other people because you kind of internalize what you say is called the saying is believing effect. So a lot of the interventions that they do in these studies is getting people to write out short essays or social media posts about how they might apply a certain mindset in their life, but then you are spreading it to another person who might spread that to another person and it can be contagious. And we see that with things like positive stress mindsets. So if you teach people about how feelings of anxiety and moderation can actually be very useful in achieving your goals, and actually it can be a form of energy and motivation and a useful source of information. If you have one person in a team who's thinking like that, it often just spreads quite naturally to the other people around 'em. So we can all make a difference not just to ourselves, but to the people we care about,

Joey Odom (33:20):

Which is how culture is formed, which is how cultures are just the taken for granted assumptions with how a group operates. And so you can begin that in whatever little subculture you have, whether it's a work subculture, whether it's a family subculture, whether whatever you're in, you can begin to shape that culture by normalizing that behavior. I think there's another tie in, you talked about the concept of upward comparisons. And again, as this being, to me, this being a parenting book, you think about, I immediately went to social media for a developing child's brain. When they're looking at somebody else, they're looking at somebody who may be more fit than they are. And again, they talk about obviously the huge detriment to especially teenage girls body image when they see others around them and they're comparing themselves up, and that just brings them way down. I would love your take. You referenced it a little bit in the book. Will you give me a take on how you're seeing social media's impact on young developing children's brains when it comes to upward comparison?

David Robson (34:31):

Yeah, so I mean, I think upward comparison is the major danger, which it is, what do we call it? Like the fief of joy, because there's always, no matter how good you are, there's always going to be someone who, for whatever reason you think they've achieved a little bit more than you, they or beautiful than you, they're smarter than you are never going to be at the peak of humanity. So it's a losing game. If you are doing upward comparison, you're always going to feel bad about yourself. We know that that can then produce these negative expectation effects. So people who look at Fitz inspiration posts on Instagram, these kind of incredibly sporty people, the idea is that that motivates you to work out extra hard. But the research shows that actually because you kind of is causing you to denigrate your own fitness, you actually find the exercise less pleasurable.

It feels that hard work, and you don't get that kind of high once you've finished the exercise. So it's not really that inspiring at all, actually. It's very detrimental. And yeah, I think this is something that can happen to all of ours. I think there's loads of neuroscience showing that it's going to be especially likely for teenagers because as their brains are developing, they do, some of the changes that are occurring during adolescence do mean that they feel emotions like shame, especially keenly things like shame and humiliation. And there's a whole evolutionary theory about how actually building strong social relationships and being aware of your status might've been useful during adolescence in evolutionary terms, because if you build strong alliances, then you're set up well for adulthood. But obviously people living in caves didn't have Instagram where they could be looking at hundreds or thousands of profiles that would be constantly triggering that social comparison.

So it is a danger, but I do think that social media can also be of benefit if we teach children to not engage with it in that way, because you can also use social media for social connection. Obviously, it's a powerful tool for staying in touch with people, even if you no longer live near to them for celebrating other people's successes, for talking about issues that might be affecting you. And I think that's why we often see in the scientific literature conflicting findings. You'll have one study that shows that social media uses triggering a rise in depression in teens and another that finds no such effect and finds that actually the more teens use social media, they're more well adjusted. They are. And I think it's because both can be true, it can be detrimental, it can be good for the kids. They really need to have the kind of social media literacy to be aware of these effects and to be taught how to use it for the good of their own mental health and how to notice when actually it's having a negative impact and when to disengage as well.

Joey Odom (37:43):

Yeah, it does show, to your point, it seems like the downside is so severe. I think we're probably years away from legislation with young kids, but especially as they're young, this is what we hear from people who think about this a bunch, is the holding off. The longer you can, especially on social media for kids that holding off, it almost has a similar effect to alcohol in a way. The likelihood of a kid becoming an alcoholic is directly proportional to the age at which they were exposed to alcohol. And so the more we can, as our kids grow, let social media grow with them to some degree, and then we can have a little bit more of a handle on it. But to that developing mind, I mean even to probably a lot of people listening to 30, 30 5-year-old moms and dads, it's hard ourselves to not get caught in that comparison trap. I love how you called it the thief of joy, exactly what it is, as opposed to looking at all the good that's happening around us.

David Robson (38:43):

Yeah, yeah, no, I totally agree with that. And yeah, especially like you say, just waiting for the brain to develop enough that I think that to get past that stage where you're so sensitive to other people's judgment, I think once the prefrontal cortex starts maturing more in late teens, early twenties, I think we can make more rational appraisals of these situations. But like you said, if it starts very, very young, I don't think kids are well equipped to deal with it in the most constructive way.

Joey Odom (39:16):

Yeah, there's a lot more in the book, and I don't want to go over all, I do want people to go read this book. I texted this book as I was reading it to eight or nine friends just said, you have to get this book and is I want everybody out there to get this. This will shape how you view the world, Dave, you'll laugh. This morning I was doing a workout and I was in the middle of a terrible set of burpees, and I thought to myself, oh, think of what this is doing for my body. This fatigue is a good sign. That means I'm developing. But it does, it changes. It actually changes the way you view the things that you're going through. And so that subtle mindset shift, or maybe it felt like a drastic mindset shift at the time, it is really, really helpful. The question that I have maybe for these purposes right here for you yourself or maybe your advice to others, there's a lot in here to, and awareness is the first step, but it seems like a lot to begin to try to apply. What are a couple of first steps for people to begin to apply the expectation effect to their lives?

David Robson (40:24):

Yeah, I guess having written the book chapter by chapter, I did start applying all of the techniques myself. So I think you can integrate it into your daily thinking in a way that actually comes to feel very natural. But yeah, I think small steps is definitely the answer. I think just identifying those catastrophizing thoughts and then trying to break those cycles just by questioning your assumptions and keeping an open mind. So just reminding yourself, this might be what I most fear, but it doesn't mean that it's definitely going to happen, that it could be much better than I expect to. I think that's a really positive way to start. Then I think maybe just look at one domain where you feel like you could make a real difference and where you have a real desire to try to apply this. So it could be something like fitness or it could be stress about a situation that leaves you feeling very anxious, and then it's all about reappraising the feelings and just the way that you said, it's like we can see our feelings of fatigue as a kind of sign of failure when we're exercising.

It can be really frustrating. You want to be fitter than you are, and you feel like if the exertion is really hurting, then it's a reminder you haven't achieved that goal. But you can also spin that like you did and emphasize that actually it's a sign of growth. You're never going to get better if you always go on the slowest feed on the treadmill or you quite limply, just go for a few burpees without pushing yourself to the max. So the pain is a sign of growth, and the research shows that once you recognize that, you're actually more likely to feel that flood of endorphins that makes us feel so good. After exercise of something like stress, if something's making you feel anxious, just reminding yourself that actually as uncomfortable as you might feel, the physical symptoms, things like the racing of your heart, that's not actually a bad or dangerous reaction.

It can actually be very helpful pumping all that oxygen to your brain, and when you feel kind of on edgewell that cortisol, you might feel uncomfortable, but the cortisol is actually keeping you alert. And if you're going for a job interview, doing a presentation, whatever, you don't want to be sleepy and drowsy. You want to be energized and putting, putting all of your attention into the task at hand. I've applied that myself. But in both of those cases, it was probably the first ways that I started to use the expectation effect, and it really felt like a very iterative process. So straight away, I felt like there was a small benefit. These my workouts just got a little bit more pleasant. I started to enjoy public speaking a little bit more, and then you kind of build on that. So the next time that you face the same kind of task, you remind yourself of how you felt the last time you reapply that cognitive appraisal.

So you start kind of trying to reinterpret those sensations another time and you'll see a positive trajectory. So you might not have a miracle. You're not going to become an Olympic athlete overnight by changing your mindset. You're not going to become this super charismatic speaker when you are a nervous wreck just by applying the expectation effect once. But over relatively short periods of times, like weeks or months or the course per year, actually, the change will feel quite miraculous. And I see it as just being a way of taking the breaks off of your progress. You've had these kind of self-sabotaging thoughts that you're now construing and that is just helping you to make the most of all of the effort that you are putting into these challenges.

Joey Odom (44:31):

That's so good. And you said something there that's such, even if someone just walked away with these seven words, when we're going through anything physical, mental, emotional, whatever it is just that simple line, the pain is a sign of growth. Just what if we said, what if we just began today and just said, when we felt something that was uncomfortable, we said, oh, this pain is a sign of growth, and you say this in the epilogue, and I said it earlier, it's just to be kind to yourself. Like you said, it is an iterative process for me. I got 43 years behind me that I have to rewire, and so let's do that slowly. Just that being kind to yourself is such an important principle, which I love how you tie that applicability to it.

David Robson (45:15):

Yeah, I mean self-compassion, almost like evangelical about self-compassion because I feel like the research is so strong, it's something that it doesn't come naturally to most of us, but actually the research shows us that. So people assume that self-criticism is the way to get better because you think, well, if I don't really own my mistakes and beat myself up about them, I'll just kind of keep repeating it again and again. It's like this puritanical mindset almost. It's like you need to feel, it's like spare the worlds spoil the child, but we apply it to ourselves. Actually, I hope none of us would do that with our children these days, and I hope and we should start using the same philosophy with ourselves because actually people are far more effective at bringing about personal change than self-critical people because with self-compassion, you start to feel more kind of more self-efficacy. You feel more capable, you procrastinate less because you are less stressed, and all of that's really important for then enacting your new goals.

Joey Odom (46:34):

Just candidly, this is a hard good but difficult concept overcoming a lot of years of you, you kind of link your actions to your identity versus peeling the two apart. That's a really important piece of just like, oh, I'm good inside, but I did something that maybe wasn't good. So this brings us to how we originally connected was your absolutely brilliant Wall Street Journal article. It was in January when it was written in the time that people are setting resolutions and goals, and probably my suspicion is failing at some of those goals and resolutions they had, and the title of your article was Don't Give Up because you slipped up and you talk about the setback effect. Will you walk us through that principle and people, we'll actually link that article in the show notes as well because it's so powerful. Will you walk us that setback effect and for the person right now who says, I had all these aspirations and I've already failed.

David Robson (47:35):

Right. I mean, I think this has been a very common phenomenon where you've set a goal to lose weight or to go to the gym or to learn a language or whatever, to go to your lessons, and then something gets in the way. You're tempted by a piece of cake or you've had a bad day at work and you just want to go and watch trash TV rather than going to the gym or you friends are going to the pub, and so you skip your language lesson and all of that is valid. Actually. We don't have to be perfect to achieve our goals. We don't have to be a hundred percent committed every single day of our life for cumulatively the positive steps we have taken to bring us towards our goal. It's only a minor detour, but we often don't see it like that.

It's not logical, but when we fail, once we tell ourselves that there was something inherently wrong with our self-control and willpower, we're just not the kind of person who's capable of resisting temptation and of committing and any expectation effect that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we have a sense of lower self-efficacy, it makes it much harder for us to then stay committed the next time that there might be another temptation. And there's quite a few studies now showing that this happens in all kinds of situations. So when people are trying to stop procrastinating or trying to get fib trying to lose weight in all of these cases, the feeling of guilt and the blame that we put on ourselves is detrimental and actually just reminding ourselves of the fact that lots of things come up in life that can temporarily weaken our willpower. That is fine. We can try to avoid them, but when we fail, we just have to remind ourselves that it doesn't say anything inherent about ourselves and that actually you can pick up the next day where you are and all of the progress that you've made is still there and isn't wasted, that you can still just get back on the wagon and continue without any lasting harm being done.

Joey Odom (50:14):

Again, it's in a way, it sounds like you're excusing yourself. That's how it feels on the surface. But when you do, again, you start, the guilt just kind of pulls you down, or you start identifying yourself as somebody who can't follow through on their tasks versus saying like, no, I can do that. I had a quick lapse. Or, Hey, this is a difficult thing that I'm doing. Which means of course there are going to be challenges. Of course, there'll be setbacks, but it's this balance between completely excusing yourself but then beating yourself up. It's just this little sweet spot right in the middle, right,

David Robson (50:49):

Right, exactly. And that comes back like you were suggesting to self-compassion, and that's what we find with people who are self-compassionate. It doesn't mean that they just dismiss any mistake that they've made, but they just realize that it doesn't reflect something inherently awful about themselves, and they recognize that there's actually a chance to make up for any errors that they've made. If you lost your temper with your kids, you can make up for that afterwards. You can apologize. You can use it as a moment to talk about processing difficult feelings or whatever. It doesn't have to leave a lasting stain on the relationship. It's the same with all of those other goals.

You might realize that by just changing your routine slightly, it's going to be much easier for you to go to the gym if you work out in the morning rather than the evenings, or maybe you just need to move the cookie jar a bit further away from your desk where you're working. We can learn from our mistakes and we can see self-control as this kind of skill that increases with time. But like you said, like any skill in needs practice, sometimes we're going to be better than we are at other times, but you're just focusing on the trajectory. It's a journey, and you are trying to focus on your end goal rather than getting too caught up in those tiny little details that you make.

Joey Odom (52:22):

I love that We will link that article in the show notes. I've taken too much of your time, but will you tease out for us coming June 4th, will you tease out for us the Laws of connection, your upcoming book, which by the way, we're going to have you back on before then, but just give us a little teaser on that one.

David Robson (52:38):

Yeah, I mean, I would love to come back to chat, but yeah, the Laws of Connection, it's available for pre-order now, and it's really kind of following on from the expectation effect. You don't need to have read the expectation effect to enjoy it, but it's really building on some of those themes to look at our social relationships and how we have a bunch of psychological barriers that prevent us from connecting to the people around us in the most optimum way. So one example of this quickly is something called the liking gap, and that's where you can meet someone new, you can have a really enjoyable conversation where you really feel like you get each other, but afterwards, both parties start doubting themselves so they think they know they liked the other person, but they assume the other person didn't like them as much, and both parties are feeling this, and because of that, they are less likely to kind of make an effort to connect again in the future. And it's completely wasted because actually chances are both parties liked each other as much as they did. And so yeah, I guess the book is just looking at all of these barriers and how to knock them down. And actually with the expectation effect, it's often just about reappraising what we're feeling, questioning our assumptions, just pushing ourselves to be a little bit braver and saying that actually even with just a few changes to our behavior, we can really live a much more fulfilling happy social life.

Joey Odom (54:21):

I love that. Be a little bit braver. David. I'll tell you one thing, I don't doubt that I like you and I know that our guests, our audience doesn't doubt that they've liked you, and this has just been, man, this has been so good, and believe me, I've cut out a bunch of my notes and questions. I just engulfed myself in this book, so thank you for joining us. Where can people, you mentioned the pre-order of the Laws of Connection. Can people just go to your website? What's the best way to follow your work?

David Robson (54:54):

Yeah, I mean, to follow my work in general, please do come to my website. It's davidrobson.me. I update that with book news, with new media articles that I've been working on and podcast appearances to pre-order or order any of my books. Just use your regular booksellers, so it could be Amazon Books, A Million Barns and Noble. They'll be available wherever you buy your books.

Joey Odom (55:21):

That's wonderful. David, thank you so much. It was great talking to you, and we look forward to having you back here to talk about the lives of connection in a couple of months.

David Robson (55:29):

Thank you. I mean, it was a real pleasure. Yeah, I really enjoyed the conversation.

Joey Odom (55:33):

Thank you.

I want to leave you with three things that David said that I loved. One, let's recognize that comparison is the thief of joy. That's one. The second one is let's practice some self-compassion today when we stumble, let's not let that identify us or Marcus, or even when we're talking with our kids, let's be careful to not mark them with that on. That's who they are. Maybe it's just a little stubbed toe and we can get over it quickly and we can repair and we can do some great things with it. And then the third thing is, and I'm going to say this to myself, but maybe we try this today. Let's try these seven words When we feel pain, discomfort, challenge is let's just say to ourself, when something hurts, just say this, pain is a sign of growth. This pain is a sign of growth.

I wonder what that'll do. This is an experiment. I haven't tried this yet. What if we tried that out and took a look at how that may impact our view on the difficulty pain discomfort we're going through? Thank you for joining us. Please do go check out David Robson's work. Please go get a copy of the Expectation Effect. We look forward to having back in a couple months to talk about the laws of connection. It was great to see you. Hope you enjoyed this episode. Look forward to seeing you again next week. The Aro Podcast is produced and edited by the team at Palm Tree Pod co. Special thanks to Emily Miles for video and digital support, and to our executive producer Aro's own, Katelyn Farley.