This really happened.
Just after New Years Day last year, a 29 year-old British man leaped before he looked.
Had he looked at the ground six feet below where he was perched on a building foundation, he would have spotted a six-inch construction nail, its point facing him.
But he jumped, and landed with such force that the nail pierced through his leather boot. He collapsed to the ground, shrieking in pain.
Three coworkers ran to aid him, then carried him to a car and rushed him to the nearest hospital.
The ER doctors immediately discovered that barely touching the nail made the man scream. So to induce drowsiness and reduce his anxiety, they injected him with midazolam. When this failed, they decided to administer the Mother of All Pain Killers, fentanyl, a drug 100 times more potent than morphine. (The drug became famous just months later when a team investigating singer Michael Jackson’s death discovered bottles of the drug in his master bathroom.)
When the potent drug took effect, the two doctors started to remove the patient’s boot. When they finally freed the man’s foot and removed his sock, they stared, then looked at each other in stunned silence.
They saw that the nail had passed cleanly between their patient’s big and second toe. His foot was unscathed; his pain was all in his head.
What happened here? A phenomenon similar to ther placebo effect, called a nocebo effect. Nocebo effects occur when a patient develops ide effects from a drug that cannot cause those effects. (Nocebo effects are significant in health care today, because they waste time and money because their sufferers demands another medication–which may prove less effective–and seek treatment for their merely-perceived side effects.)
The tale of the nail and these effects illustrate something fundamental: Our expectations influence our experiences–so much so, at times, that our expectations becomes our experience.
Diners visit the famous New York restaurant Tavern on the Green, sip the coffee, and claim it ‘tastes fabulous”–despite the fact that it’s freeze-dried, as a famous Folgers commercial demonstrated decades ago. The diners expected delicious coffee. And so it was.
Diners visit the New York restaurant Provence, savor its Pasta in Marina Sauce, and proclaim it delicious–even though it actually came from a nearby Pizza Hut, as a recent commercial for that franchise revealed.
In tests for Rogaine, participants rave that it grows hair–including 40% of the participants who receive the control substance.
A host introduces a featured speaker by reciting a resume so impressive that you feel certain you will hear an exceptional presentation. And then you do–you think. The introducer has primed you to think that.
We cling to the belief that our brains perform like computers, but they continue to behave like 19 years-olds after several beers. Women carrying Victoria Secret’s bags feel more attractive than women carrying plain white bags.1 People exposed to the Apple logo perform better on creative tests than people exposed to the IBM logo.2 And a six-inch nail passes cleanly between a man’s toes, and the man suffers excruciating pain.
These incidents raise three questions.
First, what is reality? “Reality often is inaccurate,” Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy. When an interviewer asked Tom Clancy the difference between reality and fiction, the popular author responded as if he’d just read this Tale. “Fiction,” Clancy said, “has to make sense.”
These incidents also raise two final questions for you, the reader:
How might you prime people beforehand, so that they expect that your idea, product or service will work wonderfully?
And how might you change people’s assumptions–about you, your company, or what you offer–so that you will win them over?
–Harry Beckwith–follow on Twitter–speaks on marketing and buyer behavior worldwide, has written four international bestsellers, including Selling the Invisible and the just-released Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy, and currently is trying to devise a way to make you think this article was outstanding.
1 Ji Kyung Park and Deborah Roedder John. Got to Get You Into My Life: Do Brand Personalities Rub Off on Consumers? Journal of Consumer Research, February 2011
2 Duke University (2008, March 30). Logo Can Make You ‘Think Different’.c ScienceDaily.