These four events, exactly 19 years apart, actually occured. They tell us a lot.
In April 1993, the author/humorist Calvin Trillin arrived at the podium in a 1940-era Minneapolis library to promote his newest book, Remembering Denny. When he began to read, people started to chuckle, and they continued until he closed his book. The humorist made them laugh.
Trillin was reading from his remembrance of his Yale classmate, Denny Hansen, whose young life burned so brightly that Life magazine covered his college graduation, and a year later reported on his first year as a Rhodes Scholar in England.
But Denny's All-American story ended in a Delaware garage in 1991, where local police officers discovered Denny lying in the front seat of his running Honda Accord. The man that many of his fellow Yale students assumed one day would be President was dead from the carbon monoxide. His story was tragic, of course, and so was Trillin's telling of that day in Minneapolis.
Yet the Minnesotans laughed.
Why? Because they expected that they would. Trillin was a humorist, after all.
With startling frequency, what we expect is what we get.
In 2006, Harvard Professor Ellen Langer solicited the help of 84 Boston hotel housekeepers. Dr. Langer told the workers at four of the hotels that their work provided good exercise and "met the guidelines for a healthy, active lifestyle." To the housekeepers at the other three hotels, Langer said nothing.
Four weeks later, she compared the two groups.
The women who hadn't heard about the health benefits of their work showed no change in weight, body fat, or blood pressure. The housekeepers who heard that their work was good exercise, by contrast, lost an average of two pounds and 0.5 percent of their body fat--and experienced a 10 percent drop in their systolic blood pressure.
What the housekeepers expected is what they got.
In 2008,Dr. Lysann Damisch asked some research subjects to see how many putts they could make in ten tries. For half of the putts, her researchers handed the golfers a ball that "turned out be the lucky one" in previous trials. In the other cases, researchers told participants that their ball was the one "everyone has used so far."
Participants putting the "lucky" ball made two more putts out of ten then they made putting the ordinary ball.
We experience what we expect to experience.
On April 2, The New York Times reported on a Cornell University discovery about Cheetos without their flavorless artificial orange coloring: They don't taste cheesy. Kantha Shelke, a food chemist with the Institute of Food Technologists, reminded the Times reporters of previous tests in which tasteless yellow coloring was added to vanilla pudding. How did the vanilla pudding taste to the tasters?
"Banana" and "lemon" were the most popular answers.
What if you add mango or lemon flavoring to white pudding? "Vanilla pudding," most testers report.
We taste what we expect to taste.
Consider what this suggests about advertising. Advertising is not designed simply to coax us to buy; it's also designed to alter our experience. An expensive shampo ends all our Bad Hair Days, Coke tastes delicious, and Rogaine--including the control substance in Rogaine tests--grows hair. Advertising is designed, in part, to increase our satisfaction.
Now, do you want to change your experiences?
Do you want to lose weight, think more creatively, experience more joy--or perhaps sink more putts?
These stories suggest a way:
Change what you think.
Harry Beckwith (Follow onTwitter)( website blog) has written five international bestselling books, advised 23 Fortune 200 companies on marketing, and speaks on marketing and buyer psychology all over the world.