Expect to Get Better. You Probably Will.

Research has shown that positive expectations increase the chances of a good outcome. It’s the old self-fulfilling prophecy; your attitude determines your approach to situations. If you believe you’ll be successful, you’ll likely put in more effort. You’ll be more willing to try new things, take some risks and keep trying after failures or setbacks. A negative attitude will likely mean that you’ll take your first failure or setback as confirmation that what you’re trying won’t work or isn’t possible and you’ll give up. Why waste time and effort on something that’s doomed to failure anyway?

Your Expectations Influence Your Results

There’s some research to prove that positive thinking and expectations make a difference in rehab settings too. A review of 23 articles compiled by the professional journal Clinical Rehabilitation in 2019 looked at treatment outcomes for patients with shoulder pain and found a several interesting trends. First, patients who expected to recover and believed that they had some control of the outcome ended up doing better than those who didn’t. Second, optimistic patients were found to have less pain and disability after completing rehab than their less optimistic counterparts. And third, patients who believed that they would have pain and disability after surgery tended to have – you guessed it – pain and disability after their surgery. This research indicates that there is a tendency to get what you expect.

Your Therapist’s Expectations Are Likely to Matter Too

Your attitude is important, but what about your therapist’s? There isn’t much research out there looking specifically at PTs, but there is a well-known study from the 1960s that might give us some clues. In this study, two psychologists suggested that teacher expectations had an influence on student performance in elementary school classrooms. During the study, they told teachers that randomly selected students in their classes were tested and found to be “late bloomers”. These students were expected to show large improvements in academic performance during the upcoming school year. When the students were tested 8 months later, the students the teachers believed would improve the most, did in fact do so.

Why might this have happened? It is hypothesized that when teachers think that students have a lot of potential to improve, they may hold them to higher standards. They may teach more complex materials, encourage students to give more than simplistic answers, or be more inclined to follow-up with additional tutoring or other individualized instruction as student needs or academic interests are identified. The students are likely to increasingly feel more confident and able as they improve their academic knowledge and then continue to seek out more learning opportunities. A positive feedback loop has then been established, which is likely to contribute to further future successes.  It’s pretty easy to see how this phenomenon could cross over into a PT clinic. If your PT thinks you can get better, they are likely to try to motivate you to set lofty goals, increase your comfort zone by designing challenging activities, and encourage you to problem solve with them to address any difficulties that you may encounter with specific aspects of your recovery.  You are then likely to be encouraged by your initial treatment achievements and to feel more confident and optimistic about your recovery.  Moving forward, an efficient partnership has been established between you and your therapist, which is then likely to perpetuate and produce further rehab success.

To have the best chance for a good outcome when recovering from illness or injury, you and your therapist both need to expect success. You most likely will find yourself pleasantly rewarded!