How Expectations Influence Human Behavior

Hello, my name is Simon Fischweicher, and I’m a fantasy nerd. In high school I outlined an entire epic fantasy series filled with fairies, centaurs, talking raccoons, and demi-gods. I’ve spent an entire day watching all three “Lord of the Rings” movies in a row. And, I love George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” or “Game of Thrones” as it is more commonly known because of the HBO television series adaptation. So naturally, when I heard Peter Dinklage, the actor who plays Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” would be speaking at one of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave events, I had to go.

The event, titled “The Actor,” showcased a conversation between Peter Dinklage and Dan Ariely, Ph.D., James B. Duke Professor of Psychology & Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Their discussion focused on the illusions, expectations, and perceptions created by actors, but also branched into other areas, such as a behavioral discussion of lying and Dinklage’s frustration with the film industry’s demeaning attitude toward roles for little people.

The Actor2

(Credit: Michael Palma for The Rubin Museum)

One topic where the speakers’ expertise meshed was how expectations influence human behavior. Ariely described an experiment where two groups of people were given the same placebo pill during a study on pain relief. One group was told the pill was expensive, while the other was told it was cheap. After they took the pill, each group was then given a series of electric shocks. Results showed that the group with the “expensive” pill was able to withstand more pain. Ariely said that this outcome suggests this group expected an expensive pain pill to provide superior relief. The human brain tries to predict the future and prepare for it, he explained.

Ariely and Dinklage related this experiment to acting. Ariely wondered: How do our expectations influence our perception of movies and TV shows we view? If critics tell us that someone’s acting is good, are we more likely to perceive it as good? One audience member even asked if Dinklage and Ariely believe “Game of Thrones” is only thought to be such a good show because it’s on an expensive, premium network rather than on basic cable.

Dinklage agreed that at times our expectations, often created by what critics tell us, can and do influence our perception of acting. However, he feels that viewers can recognize great acting when an actor is able to create something “honest”–making the illusion or fantasy relatable to the viewer. This is also why Dinklage feels that actors who reveal too much of their personal lives to the public often lose the ability to create this honest illusion when acting. With this in mind, Ariely explained that our brains are much more likely to accept the idea of something (such as an expensive pain medication) if there is a possibility that it is or could be real. He illustrated this concept with another experiment. In this one, men were shown pictures of two similar looking women; they were told one was married and the other single. When asked who they found more attractive, the dominant answer was the single woman. Ariely believes that her single status meant that, no matter how small the chance of meeting her, the men felt that she was more available to them. Thus, in their minds she appeared more attractive.

While “Game of Thrones” is not exactly rooted in reality, with its dragons and zombie-like White Walkers, the characters on the show are relatable, or what Dinklage calls “honest,” and perhaps for many, that draws them into the fantasy storylines.

The Actor” is part of the ongoing Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art, which this year is focused on the idea of illusions. There are many interesting topics with intriguing speakers in the line-up, so check out their schedule. Next week’s Brainwave talk features Dustin Lance Black, writer of “Milk” and “J. Edgar,” and neurobiologist Tom Carew, Ph.D., a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member. We’ll be covering that event (Dana is a sponsor), so stay tuned!

– Simon Fischweicher

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