How much do our expectations of others, positive or negative, influence our relationships with them? Most of us believe that our judgments of other people are based on our experience with them, but is it really as straightforward as that?
In their book, Pygmalion in the Classroom, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackson challenge this idea.
“When we are led to expect that we are about to meet a pleasant person, our treatment of him at the first meeting may, in fact, make him a more pleasant person. If we are led to expect that we shall encounter an unpleasant person, we may approach him so defensively that we make him into an unpleasant person … . It is about interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecies: how one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior can quite unwittingly become an accurate prediction simply for its having [been] made.” (1)
In the Introduction to their book, Rosenthal and Jackson tell a very interesting story. This story is about the early 1960s, when a man named James Sweeney taught industrial management and psychiatry at Tulane University. At the same time James Sweeney was also responsible for the operation of the Biomedical Computer Centre at Tulane. For reasons best known to himself, rather than building an ivory tower to laud his competencies, James Sweeney believed that he could teach anybody to become a computer operator. This was a big claim back in the 1960s when operating computers was specialized and technical and nothing like the push-button activity we now enjoy.(2)
But Sweeney was sure he could teach even an uneducated person to do this job. So, he chose to train the computer center janitor, George Johnson. George was a former hospital porter with very little formal education, but he agreed to work with James Sweeney. So, each morning, Mr. Johnson performed his janitorial duties, while in the afternoons he studied computers. Things progressed very well until the management at the university discovered what was happening and insisted that George Johnson take an IQ test.
According to the results of the test, George should not have been able to type, let alone operate a computer, and the administration at the university wanted to stop his training. But James Sweeney stood his ground and threatened to resign if George Johnson’s training was forced to conclude. The college authorities relented and James Sweeney continued to train George Johnson.
Embarrassingly for the college administration, George Johnson not only learned to operate a computer, he went on to run the main computer room and eventually was put in charge of training new operators. The clear lesson from this experience is that George Johnson’s capabilities were more closely related to James Sweeney’s expectations than to any, so-called, objective criteria. It seems, as Rosenthal and Jackson say in the Preface to Pygmalion in the Classroom:
“People, more often than not, do what is expected of them.” (3)
The reasons that people do what is expected of them are complex but not all that mysterious. Expectations alter our behavior in subtle ways, and this can bring about change, even, in another person. However, while subtle, these tiny Butterfly Effect changes that manifest as a result of expectations are sometimes enough to set people on a course that has more to do with the expectation than with their original potential, for good or ill.
(1) Robert Rosenthal/Lenore Jacobson, Pygmalion in The Classroom, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1968, p.4
(2) ibid, Chapter 1
(3) ibid, p.4
Patricia “Trisha” Rainsford lives in Ireland and used to be a Classics teacher (amongst other things) before she became a full-time writer. She has published two novels, The Knack of Life and A Secret Place. Trisha also co-authored four other novels, which were also published, as well as having written countless other things including a TV series that was in development for a while but then cancelled (c'est la vie). Still writing today, a lot of her work is focused on the generation and application of knowledge for human development. Read more from Trisha on her blog, Creating Reciprocity.
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