Some scientists believe that our expectations can do more than determine our personal tastes. They believe that our expectations can actually alter what our senses perceive. For example, the human mind can read most familiar words when the letters in the middle of the word have been jumbled. As long as all letters are present, and the first and last letter of the word remain in their correct position, most people will automatically read the word with no trouble at all. What is more amazing is that most people will not even realize that the letters have been changed. We expect the word to be written a certain way, and unless we are paying close attention, our minds will simply "fill in the blanks" to save the time and energy of actually analyzing every letter individually.
My father once told me a very memorable story about expectations and the perception of taste. On a flight to Europe, many years ago, my father sat next to a fellow named Hans. Hans was traveling with a co-worker, Alex, who had been upgraded to a first class seat. Prior to the flight, when the two men were offered the upgrade, Hans had graciously given the seat to his young co-worker who had never flown first class.
During the flight, Hans and my father worked on their laptops, made small talk, and relaxed to pass the time. Through the flight’s duration, Alex sent small gifts to from the first class cabin. Whenever he was served something sweet, he would have some of it sent back to Hans, who happily enjoyed them. Toward the end of the flight, an attendant arrived with some hard candies wrapped in gold foil. "I love butterscotch," Hans remarked as he delightedly popped one into his mouth. Immediately, Hans’s face dropped with disappointment. A moment passed, and he riled in disgust. Spitting out the candy, he explained to my father that this candy tasted awful. So awful, that he was convinced it must have been prank candy. Shocked and angered, he began ranting to my father that Alex must be playing a nasty trick on him. "What kind of sick person would do something like this?" he exclaimed. He sat back in his chair, red and fuming.
A few moments later, Alex came down the aisle with a huge grin on his face. "How are you enjoying my treats, Hans?", he asked. Hans exploded! He began to berate the young man for his cruelty. The grin on Alex’s face very quickly turned to a puzzled and mortified expression. He told Hans that he had no idea what he meant. He had eaten the very same candies earlier. Because he found them so delicious, he had several sent to his friend in the rear cabin. Convinced that Alex was only continuing his sick joke, Hans handed Alex one of the remaining candies, insisting that he ate it right away.
The very confused Alex popped one into his mouth and said, "I don’t understand, Hans. This coffee candy is delicious." Now Hans was confused. He unwrapped a third candy and began to eat it. Hans quickly realized what had happened. When he opened the candy he was expecting the sweet flavor of butterscotch. He was caught off guard by the bitter coffee flavor, so much so, that his mind automatically read "bad" instead of "good". Bashfully, he apologized to Alex and continued to suck on the candy.
After Alex returned to his seat in first class, Hans looked at my father and handed him the last hard candy. "It’s quite good, really," he explained.
This story is a favorite of mine. It illustrates the power of expectations very well. The next time you try something new, keep Hans in mind. Try to clear your mind of all expectations and experience the flavor or aroma objectively. You may be surprised at you what you develop a taste for!