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What glasses are you wearing? Attention & Expectation

Try this: picture your favourite training run (or cycle or drive to work) – the route you take and what you see along the way.

Now imagine that you took someone along for the run. What if this someone was an architect? Or a geologist or sound engineer. Do you think they would notice different things?

Of course, they would.

The architect may notice that beautifully corniced building on the corner, the geologist sees the rock formation on the side of the road or the sound engineer hears the different sounds your Nikes make as you run on tar, grass or gravel. It’s as if each is looking through a different set of glasses at the world.

By paying attention to different things the familiar run, seen through different eyes, comes alive in ways you may not have thought possible. As one of the founding fathers of psychology, William James, wrote: My experience is what I agree to pay attention to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.

Psychologists talk about the ABC theory to somewhat explain why we all see the world differently.

A = Actual event (something happens)

B = Belief (about yourself and the world)

C = Consequence (of seeing A through B)

Think about B as glasses you wear to view A through. Then, depending on your glasses, C is either good or bad – you get anxious maybe, or rather happy and excited. We have to be very careful what glasses we wear, because our world changes dramatically depending on the lens.

Not only do our beliefs direct our attention to certain things, but they also set up the EXPECTATION that we will see these things in the first place. Do you think the architect starts running with an expectation that there will be beautiful buildings to look at? Don’t you think the sound engineer expects that there will be interesting sounds to hear? And because they expect it – they see or hear things we wouldn’t.

Our expectations drive our attention and we focus on things we expect to find. Think about the power of expectation this way: when you phone your mother but call your best friend by mistake what happens? Confusion. You know your best friends voice, but you were expecting your mothers and so your brain can’t work out what’s just happened.

Our expectations make us go looking for things to back up our beliefs. This relates to something called Confirmation Bias. We all have a tendency to search for, interpret and recall information that confirms our already held beliefs (you’ve probably heard people call it cherry-picking information – in other words you pick out the parts you like/want and discard the rest).

How does this relate to performance?

Let’s say I have a belief that I am actually not so good at running. But I want to give the Park Run a go. I start some training and what happens?

  1. My belief filters out my experience and brings the bad into sharper focus than the rest. This means I start to focus on and pay attention to all the things I can’t do, or the days I didn’t make the times I wanted to, or the moments where I needed to stop because I was exhausted.
  2. I expect not to be able to do it and so actually begin looking for all the bits of information to back up this belief. I search for and find all the times I walked, the moments of struggle and the days I missed the goals I set myself (because there will always be those moments of difficulty). And this confirms it: I am a bad runner.

What we believe, pay attention to and expect, shapes our world and experiences.

The good news is that beliefs are just that: a belief – not fact. Beliefs can be changed. The first step to doing this is recognising what glasses you are wearing and if they are creating a beautifully coloured view of the world or a stark colourless landscape. Then, as the Positive Psychologist Shawn Achor says: Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change, it’s the realization that we can.