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Title: When There's a Will...
Author(s): Berry, Jay
Source: Consulting to Management - C2M; Sep2000, Vol. 11 Issue 2, p39, 2p
Document Type: Article
Subject(s): *CONSULTING firms
NAICS/Industry Code(s)5416 Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
Abstract: Focuses on the role of will, the power of the mind to control things, in consulting. Account of the expectancy theory, a field of cognitive neuropsychology; Effects of placebo on health; Failure of business consultants to probe the human brain.
Full Text Word Count: 1116
ISSN: 15300153
Accession Number: 3404555
Database: Business Source Premier

Section: The Behavioral Side

In my work on the "behavioral side" I have become fascinated by the power of the mind to control--or at least influence--health.

That's why placebos, for example, work wonders. Like genuine pharmaceuticals, they can have side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, and itching. They can even lead to changes in pulse rate, blood pressure, gastric functions, and skin conditions.

Don't laugh. I recently tried something similar myself. I was working out at the gym recently. I noted that my blood pressure was going up . . . to 104, 105, 106, 109 . . . . So I decided, "I am going to will my blood pressure down." Through the power of simple concentration, I was able to bring my blood pressure down to 97, simply willing it to be so. I repeated this experiment several times.

I have learned that placebos and autosuggestion work because of a new field of cognitive neuropsychology called expectancy theory--what the brain believes. You recall that a placebo is an innocuous substance that is really a phony treatment with an inactive substance. The very word placebo means in Latin "I shall please."

This may stun you, but until the 1940s, most medicine was based on placebo effects, because doctors had few effective medicines to offer! Yes, today they have legitimate formulas with which to treat illnesses, but placebos have not diminished in their power. Take antidepressants--placebos work just as well as the real thing. In short, if you think you'll get better, you will.

Sandra Blakeslee at the N.Y. Times has looked into this, too, and she has discovered the following:

To prove this, consider a fact doctors have known for a long time: Depressed patients die more often than mentally healthy ones from causes considered "natural" such as influenza and pneumonia. The immune system of severely depressed persons is a lot weaker than that of the mentally fit. Recent research reported in Psychosomatic Medicine demonstrated this convincingly. (In short, protective lymphocytes in depressed persons are fewer in number and weaker.) But examining the test panels, the doctors also found that the depressed samples smoked more, drank more, slept poorly, and exercised less. The most important factor was the exercise. The evidence says that depressed people should exercise more to avoid getting sick.

But my point is that we'd be a lot smarter as human resource specialists if we begin to understand what people think is happening to them and if we can better manage the phenomenon of expectancy theory. Importantly, doctors have come to know that the placebo effect is more powerful than we had ever imagined. Literally using new processes of imagery in the brain, they have found that they can turn a belief or desire into a change agent for tissues and organs!

The brain literally shapes its expectations as to what will happen next based on previous experience. Thus according to Anne Harrington at Harvard, placebos are "lies that heal."

One of the most remarkable sets of physical adjustments to the power of suggestion is the group of hormonal changes in men, when the wife is going to have a baby. (We all know women's metabolism alters greatly.) But we mostly don't know that in 75% of cases, men experience adjustive symptoms too: monstrous appetites, fatigue, and anxiety are typical.

The hormonal changes in a pregnant woman are, as you might expect, simply to prepare her for motherhood, such as the increase in prolactin so she can feed her tot. But scientists have found that men show many of the same prebirth symptoms that women do, probably as a sort of sympathetic reaction, but more practically to prepare them for fatherhood as well.

All this sort of change of life comes about in response to behavioral changes (and no doubt chemical ones as well) from the mother. Again: a story of mind over matter, clearly.

Now apply these kinds of findings to your consulting world. If people think they are going to fail, they will. If people think they are sure to win, they will. And this probably explains why a lot of acupuncturists, homeopathists, and chiropractors even have practices! The belief system of the patient resorts to what we call "alternative medicine," and chronic or poorly understood conditions are remedied: maybe simply because of faith in a white coat.

If we understand this syndrome, we will understand other aspects of human behavior:

My conclusion: Human resource professionals have a vast unexplored frontier ahead of them in terms of conditioning the expectations of teams they influence or manage. We've made substantial progress in screening candidates, working out training processes, and motivational compensation. But managing the imagery and conditioning process has scarcely been touched. We're hung up on pep talks and even (or especially!) we consultants to management have failed so far to probe that most stunning of all networks--the human brain.


By Jay Berry

JAY BERRY CMC, Ph.D. (psychology), is a retired partner of both McKinsey and Booz-Allen. If you'd like to discuss these ideas with Jay, you can e-mail him at, or write him care of this journal.

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Source: Consulting to Management - C2M, Sep2000, Vol. 11 Issue 2, p39, 2p
Item: 3404555