The Power of Expectations

Posted by Kristin Beale in Life After Paralysis on August 08, 2022 # Lifestyle

Do you think your thoughts have the power to influence how other people – or animals – act? Can your expectations change the outcome of someone else’s life or situation?

I’m going to get a little technical here, but just hang with me.

Dr. Bob Rosenthal, a research psychologist at UC Riverside, set out to answer that question. Dr. Rosenthal has spent the last four decades researching nonverbal communication and “the role of self-fulfilling prophecy in everyday life and laboratory situations.” Before initiating an experiment on human expectations, he snuck into his laboratory early one morning and put signs on rat cages to indicate that the rat was either very smart or very unintelligent. The signs didn’t hold any truth – all the rats were of average intelligence and purchased from the same institute – but no one else had to know that.

He presented the rats to a group of experimenters and assigned each to a specific rat – either very smart, or not so much. The experimenters were told to run their rat through a maze over a couple of weeks and record its performance.

Now, do we think Dr. Rosenthal’s labels and the experimenter’s expectations could have had an impact on the rat’s performance? Surprisingly, yes. And, actually, a significant one: the “smart” rats performed roughly twice as well as the “dumb” rats, even though they started off at basically the same intelligence level. Dr. Rosenthal concluded that the expectations the experimenter held about their rat (“This rat is smart,” or “This rat is dumb”) translated into differences in the way they interacted with and exercised the rat (e.g., handling more gently, taking better care).

The power of expectation is, in fact, very real. So, how can we use this theory of expectation to benefit ourselves and how we treat others? The implications can be fruitful, or they have serious consequences – consider the impact of a parent, teacher, or military trainer.

Dr. Rosenthal found an indirect but significant effect of a mother’s beliefs on alcohol use on an earlier drinking age of their children. 1

Drs. Rosenthal and Jacobson coined the Pygmalion Effect as describing the phenomenon of adolescents performing better when more is expected from them. More specifically, teachers who value their students’ accomplishments will create an environment of success. The opposite is also true: when a teacher holds expectations of failure around a student, the child is more likely to live up to that failure. 2

The researchers also looked at the impact a military trainer’s expectations had on the speed at which a soldier can run. You can probably guess that a positive expectation resulted in an undeniably faster finish time by the soldier. 2

There are outliers to the rules around expectations, of course, but the research is swayed

overwhelmingly to the affirmative: expectations help create reality. So, why give yourself the challenge? Why not set your expectations toward a positive outcome just in case this theory holds truth?

Changing your mindset about a performance or outcome is the first and easiest step toward setting yourself and others up for success, instead of for an uphill battle. Most of the time we’re not even aware of how we’re pushing our expectations on other people. But that doesn’t mean we’re not doing it:

You may stand farther away from someone you have lower expectations for, or you might avoid eye contact.

You may treat someone with whom you have high expectations with more consideration.

You might not expect yourself to perform well, so you don’t.

You might expect yourself to excel, then your attitude helps fulfill that prophecy.

I’m excited about this research, and it got me thinking about the expectations I inadvertently put on others: I expect to feel happy after calling my father, to be stressed after a visit to the doctor, to feel content on Sunday mornings after church, and to have a conflict of some kind when I visit a particular family member.

The power of expectations is real. Now that we see how they can play a role in creating our realities, why not fill our cups to half full instead of half empty? I might not be able to completely rewrite my reality, but I can sure as heck change how I react to it. And who knows? Maybe my expectations will make me smarter, faster, or calmer at the dinner table.

Kristin Beale is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of two books, Greater Things and A Million Suns, and a comic book, Date Me. Check them out and read an excerpt at Her comics can be found on Instagram @Greater.Things.Comics.

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