Education Opinion

The Power of Suggestion

By Anthony J. Mullen — February 18, 2010 4 min read
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Buffalo, New York

Buffalo has no buffalo. Never did. Yet the image of this iconic North American animal is everywhere. I walk through the main corridor of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and pass eateries and stores selling tee shirts, mugs, postcards and all sorts of souvenirs stamped with the image of a buffalo. I watch a mother buy a small buffalo stuffed animal for her son, and then glance at a photograph of a buffalo statue made to resemble Elvis. I expect to exit the airport and encounter a herd of buffalo.

The power of suggestion is very strong. Simply naming a city Buffalo suggests this majestic animal once roamed this beautiful region of Western New York. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a quiz:

The city of Buffalo is named after:

(A) A creek near Lake Erie.
(B) A homesteader named Joshua Buffalo.
(C) The animal that bears its name.
(D) A Canadian flower.

Most children (and adults) would probably select C. And they would be wrong.The suggestive name infers that buffalo (the animal) has something to do with Buffalo (the city) and therein lies the power of suggestion.But I wanted to test my conjecture on real people. And what better population to survey than unsuspecting college students?

Let’s all take a trip to the local college.

I am now standing inside the Student Center of Buffalo State College. Soon I will be speaking with an audience of education majors, but now is the time to try a brief social experiment. The center is teeming with hungry and hurried students. I decide to use a sample population sitting idly near a beautiful water fountain.

A young lady is sitting cross-legged next to the tranquil fountain, watching people and sipping a cup of Starbucks coffee. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know why the city of Buffalo is named Buffalo?”

She glanced at me, no doubt wondering why I had asked such a random question. “Because of all the buffalo that once lived here,” she replied. “Am I right?”

I didn’t consider the possibility that my query could be received as a right or wrong type question.

“No...but it’s a good answer, “I replied. She shrugged her shoulders and continued to drink coffee.

A student sitting near the young lady was wearing a Buffalo Bills tee shirt. Perfect! His shirt was loudly displaying the image of a large buffalo. “Do you know why the city of Buffalo is named Buffalo?” I asked.

The young man asked me to repeat the question. I later learned that he was an exchange student from France. “It is...I believe...because one time many buffalo would be here,” he answered. He looked at me for validation and the young lady waited for me to answer.

“No.” I said. “But thanks for your help.”

I approached two students who appeared to be a couple. “Excuse me,” I said politely. “But I was wondering if either of you know why Buffalo is named Buffalo?

“What do you mean?” the female half of the pair asked.

“I’m trying to find out how or why the city of Buffalo is named Buffalo,” I replied.

“That’s easy,” she said. “This area of New York once had a lot of buffalo before the Europeans and cowboys killed them all.”

“She’s right,” added her male companion. “All the buffalo were killed and became extinct. The city is named in honor of all those dead animals.”

The first student I questioned rejoined the conversation. “You see,” she said, “Buffalo is named after buffaloes.” She did not want to be proved wrong.

Suddenly I was confronted with another dimension of the power of suggestion-peer pressure. I think about how often one or more of my students answered a question incorrectly because they wanted to echo the response of another student. Students have a very strong inclination to conform to peer group standards and beliefs even when they know they are wrong. Why is that? Is it because the human mind is very susceptible to all sorts of untruths and misconceptions because our self-image is affected?

One of the most remarkable and potent examples of the power of suggestion is the placebo effect. Physicians and faith healers have known about this phenomenon for ages, but only recently has modern science been able to offer an explanation. When a doctor suggests to a patient that he is getting better, the patient’s immune system sometimes kicks into overdrive and heals. The mind “commands” the body to heal itself. Sugar pills or syringes filled with water have been proven to cure many illnesses simply because the patient is convinced that he or she has is now an active player in the healing process.

How does this relate to teaching and learning? I believe all students have an innate ability to learn, but many are unable to fully access that ability because their negative self image and associated beliefs compromise their intellect. The power of suggestion seems to be part of human nature, and that is one reason why the college students agreed on a singular answer. And that is why I, too, would have believed the city of Buffalo is named after an animal had I not first researched this trivial fact. How many students are told at an early age that a particular subject, such as math or writing, is a “weakness” and consequently believe this to be true? What if we could somehow let these students know that a “weakness” is actually a “strength” waiting to be unleashed? Could teachers tap a reservoir of potential learning that is akin to our immune system?

The power of suggestion is one of the most powerful learning tools a teacher can possess, a tool that can improve the self-image of a child and consequently the student’s ability to learn. How many teachers have used the power of suggestion to improve the success of a student?

I would enjoy reading and sharing your stories.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.