Dr. Alia Crum: Change Your Mindset, Change The Game at TEDxTraverseCity (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of psychology professor Dr. Alia Crum’s TEDx Talk: Change Your Mindset, Change The Game at TEDxTraverseCity Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Change your mindset, change the game by Dr. Alia Crum at TEDxTraverseCity


Dr. Alia Crum – ‎Assistant Professor of Psychology; Stanford University

So today, I’m going to talk about how our mindsets matter in virtually every facet of our lives. But I want to begin by telling a story about a group of researchers in Italy.

Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti and his colleagues studied a group of patients undergoing thoracic surgery. Now, what you should know about thoracic surgery is that it’s a very invasive procedure. Patients are put under anesthesia while the surgeons make major incisions into the muscles of the sides and the back in order to gain access to their hearts and to their lungs.

Now, about an hour after the anesthesia fades away, the pain starts to set in. Fortunately, patients are given strong doses of morphine sulfate, a powerful painkiller. This is routine treatment for thoracic surgery, but Dr. Benedetti and his colleagues made a few subtle tweaks: half of the patients were given the dose of morphine by a doctor at their bedside; the other half was given the exact same dose of morphine but it was administered into their IV by a pre-programmed pump.

Now you would think that both of these groups of patients would experience the same relief, but this was not the case. The group that received the morphine by the doctor reported significant reductions in their pain levels. The other group — the group who received the same exact amount of morphine but wasn’t aware of it, they didn’t seem to experience the same benefit.

So Dr. Benedetti and his colleagues didn’t stop there. They used the same procedure to test the effectiveness of other treatments — treatments for anxiety, treatments for Parkinson’s disease, treatments for hypertension. And what they found was remarkable and consistent. When the patients were aware of the treatment and expected to receive the benefit, the treatment was highly effective. But when they weren’t, that same drug, that same pill and that same procedure was blunted and in some cases not even effective at all.

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So I read about these studies when I was a student at Harvard University and at the time I was heavily immersed into the literature on the placebo effect. And the more I read, the more I started thinking about the true nature of placebos.

So what is the placebo effect really? Well, most people discount the placebo effect as just some magical response to some fake pill or some FO procedure but that’s not what the placebo effect is. The placebo effect is not about the FO pill or the sugar pill or the fake procedure. What the placebo effect really is, is a powerful robust and consistent demonstration of the ability of our mindsets — in this case, the expectation to heal, to recruit healing properties in the body.

So what is a mindset? A mindset is quite literally a setting of the mind, it’s a lens or a frame of mind through which we view the world, we simplify, the infinite number of potential interpretations at any given moment. Now the ability to simplify our world through our mindsets is a natural part of being human. But what I want to suggest to you today is that these mindsets are not inconsequential, and instead they play a dramatic role in determining our health and our well-being.

So while I was at Harvard, I had the opportunity to work with Professor Ellen Langer. She is a professor of psychologist and when she heard that I was also a division one athlete, laughed at me. She said, ‘You know, exercise is just a placebo, right?’ Now I was kind of offended because at the time I had been spending up to four hours a day training my body to be in optimal shape. But she did get me thinking about mindsets and how they might matter outside of medical walls.

Was I getting fitter and stronger because of the time and the energy that I was putting into my training or was I getting fitter and stronger because I believed that I would? What about the other extreme? What if people were getting an extraordinary amount of exercise but weren’t aware of it, would they not receive the same benefit? We decided to test this and to test this we found a really unique group of women — a group of 84 hotel housekeepers working in seven different hotels across the US.

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For these women — these women are on their feet all day long. They’re using a variety of muscles and they’re burning an extraordinary amount of calories just doing their job. But what’s interesting is that these women don’t seem to view their work in this light. We asked them, we said, ‘Do you exercise regularly?’ And two-thirds said NO. So we said, ‘Okay. Well, so on a scale of 0 to 10, how much exercise you get?’ And a third of them said 0. ‘I get no exercise at all’. So we wondered what would happen if we could change their mindset.

So we took these women, we split them into two groups. We measured them on a variety of things, including their weight, their blood pressure, their body fat, their satisfaction with their job. And then we took half of them and we gave them a simple 15-minute presentation. We gave them this poster and we said, ‘You know, your work is good exercise. It satisfies the Surgeon General’s requirements which are quite simply to accumulate about 30 minutes of moderate physical activity. You should expect to receive those benefits.’ 15 minutes.

We came back four weeks later and we measured them again. Not surprisingly, the groups that didn’t receive this information didn’t change, but those that did look different. They dropped weight, they had a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure, they dropped body fat and they reported liking their job more.

So what does this tell us? Well, to me, it was fascinating, that just as a result of a simple 15-minute presentation, the whole game changed, producing a cascade of effects on both their health and their well-being. Presumably without even changing behavior.

Now some of you might be thinking, ‘Well, how do you know they didn’t change their behavior, right, because that must have been what produced the effects? Well, we know they didn’t work anymore and the room attendants themselves assured us that they didn’t join the sports club down the street. But of course we can’t know for sure if they weren’t putting a little more oomph into making their beds.

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So this question really plagued me. Is there a direct immediate connection between our mindsets and our bodies? So to test this, I worked with my colleagues at Yale: Kelly Brownell, Will Corbin and Peter Salovey and we did so by making a big batch of milkshakes. So we made this big batch of milkshakes and then we invited people to come to our lab to try the milkshakes and in exchange we would give them $75. Sounds great, right? The less appealing aspect of the agreement was that while they were drinking the shakes we had them hooked up to an IV so we could get their blood samples. We are out to measure Ghrelin.

Ghrelin is a peptide secreted in the gut, the medical experts call this the hunger hormone. So when we haven’t eaten in a while our ghrelin levels start to rise signaling to the brain it’s time to seek out food and slowing our metabolism to just in case we don’t find that food. Now say we go out, we find and we devour a milkshake, a hamburger, some french fries, our ghrelin levels drop signaling to our brain: time to stop eating and revving up the metabolism so we can burn the food that was just consumed.

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