Observation bias – Getting in the way of our own success

One of the required courses in graduate school was Research Methods.  In this class, I learned the basics of how to determine the quality of any given study based on a number of factors.  One of the factors I learned to look for was “observation bias”.  Observation bias is when the researchers knowledge of the study’s purpose interferes with their ability to be objective.  It can create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the researchers discover exactly what they expected to find. This is best controlled for with a double-blind study in which neither researchers or participants know what to expect.

Observation bias is present in life as well. Take a look at the image above.  How many of us have said something similar when migraine takes over our lives? It is very easy to succumb to observation bias in this situation. We learn what to expect and have trouble thinking that circumstances might be any other way except how they are right now. We can’t see a way to change our lot in life.

This is a dangerous place to be as it sets us up for learned helplessness – a habitual feeling that nothing we do will ever change our situation. At this point, we tend to give up. We stop trying to make things better and stop looking for new ways to improve life.  This is called RESIGNATION, not ACCEPTANCE.

When we are in this position, we can do things like:

  • Stop talking to our doctor
  • Stop taking our medicine
  • Stop trying to identify and avoid triggers
  • Refuse to try new treatments
  • Ignore the need to address comorbid conditions
  • Start taking pain medicines more frequently than is safe, putting us at risk for Medication Overuse Headache.
  • Become angry, resentful, and depressed

It’s easy to understand how we can find ourselves in this situation.  With a shortage of qualified doctors, few effective treatments, and so many side effects discouragement happens to all of us at some point.  Maybe we lose our insurance or have a bad side effect that takes away the one medicine that did work. Maybe our employer threatens our job or our loved ones make insensitive comments.

The observation bias sets in. We start expecting to find what we’ve been finding – frustration, disappointment, and pain. But observation bias can work in our favor.  All it takes is the willingness to try one positive thing.  That little success can turn us around. We then start expecting more success.  The trick is turning that corner from expecting failure to planning for success.

In this video of Susan Boyle’s audition, no one expected such a beautiful voice to come out of her mouth.  They were guilty of observation bias.  They believed that what they saw on the surface was all there was to Susan.  No doubt the judges were prepped to hit their reject buttons the moment she opened her mouth.  She proved them all wrong and the world is richer because she had the courage to follow her dream.

Don’t let what others think or say about you and migraine define your story.  Prove them wrong!


The 2014 Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, is dedicated to Dreaming of a World without Migraine and Headache Disorders. The 2014 Migraine and Headache Awareness Month Blog Challenge is a project of American Headache & Migraine Association.


Tell us what you think!
How do you break out of a negative cycle?
What tools do you use to keep yourself from falling back into these old patterns?


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