Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Power of Expectations

Everyone knows that if you expect things to be one way that expectation can hugely affect the reality you experience. So if you are expecting to feel one way or another about a situation, then you will likely help make that happen. We can powerfully shape reality just by the ideas that we have about that reality. What may be less commonly known is that our expectations about other people specifically can actually impact their behaviour and ultimately perhaps shape their personality. This is sometimes called the Pygmalion effect and some interesting experiments have really brought home the power of this in real life. Over the holidays, I had a chance to read “ Sway” by Ori and Ram Brofman. In the book, they quote a very interesting experiment by a research team headed by Mark Snyder.

This is a brief recap of the experiment. Fifty-one women signed up for a study on communication. They were told that they would have a short telephone conversation with a man (unknown to them). The men received accurate biographical information about the women and a “fake” snapshot. Of the fake photos, half of the men were given photos of very pretty women and the other half were photos of women more ordinary in appearance. Before the phone call-men took an Impression Formation questionnaire. Men who had photos of pretty women expected to interact with sociable poised, humorous and socially adept women. The men, who thought that they would be talking to less attractive partners, thought that the women would be “unsociable, awkward, serious and socially inept”.

Researchers recorded the phone calls between the men and the women and then edited out the men's side of the conversations. The resulting clips of the women’s’ sides of the conversations were played to an independent group of people. These people were asked to evaluate the women using the same Impression Formation Questionnaire. They attributed the same positive traits to the women who the men in the study expected to be sociable poised, humorous and socially adept - based on their voices alone.

How could this have happened? The fake photos of attractive women and more ordinary women were randomly assigned to these men and had no basis in reality. Yet another group judged these women after the experiment to be more socially poised, humorous and socially adept. What apparently happened in this study is evidence of the “chameleon effect”. Once the men had formed the impression of these women, it affected every aspect of how they interacted with these women. They were more engaged, listened more actively, and generally were more immersed in the conversation.

When “the beautiful women” spoke with the men, they couldn’t help but react to the cues that the men were sending. Without realizing it, they took on the characteristics that the men had expected them to have. “What had initially been reality in the minds of the men had now become reality in the behaviour of the women. In other words, being thought of as beautiful made the women think of themselves as beautiful and exhibit “beauty” in their conversations.”

The implications of this experiment are enormous for understanding social phenomena such as prejudice and discrimination, labelling as well as the impact that our everyday assumptions and expectations of others have on their self concept and actions. If we happen to put a positive label on another person (i.e., smart, attractive, interesting), it will be enormously helpful for them actually becoming the person that you “expect” them to be. Repeated experiences like these would likely change brain structure making these personal attributes part of their personality. On the flip side, a negative or poor label can have devastating and crippling effects on self image and everything that flows in life from having a low self image. As a counsellor, I talk to people everyday where the effects of people’s negative expectations of them have indeed left their imprints. Some of the “work” of counselling is to find those positive attributes and strengths in people (that have been neglected or ignored by others). In “expecting” to see these qualities and in reflecting this reality to them, these clients like chameleons (or like Pygmalion), begin to transform.


David Boudreau

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