You get what you want!

Power of expectation

In management, the two most important secrets to success and productivity are: (1) the Pygmalion effect, and (2) the Galatea effect. The former focuses on performance expectation while the latter stresses the importance of on-going well-supported performance improvement. This article focuses on the Pygmalion effect – the power of expectation.

By definition, expectations are “a set of informed and/or uninformed predictions” that we hold of our own and others” behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Expectations are useful in regulating our day-to-day experiences, in dealing with people, and in understanding our subjective social world.

However, expectations could also lead to negative outcomes if relied on heavily without constant and deliberate awareness and monitoring of the same. Often, our predictions (expectations) bring to us what want to see in others and not necessarily what they truly intend to manifest. Regardless of how they are used, expectations play a great role in managing our own and others’ interpersonal interactions and these in turn determine our everyday performances.

Experiment with rats

In 1963, social psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues set up experiments collect empirical data on the power of expectation. Their research was called the study of “expectancy effect” or “self-fulfilling prophecy”. They randomly assigned rats into two groups, termed maze-bright and maze-dull. These rats were then given to two randomly selected college undergraduate students who took care of one group of rats each. The students only knew the rats as being either bright or dull. They were not aware of the fact that the rats were all the same.

When these students brought their respective rats back and tested them on the maze trials (ten trials over five consecutive days), the results indicated that the bright rats nearly doubled the dull rats in maze performances.

While there were no real differences in the intelligence of the two groups of rats, the bright rats did better because the college students who were responsible for them communicated high expectations through tactile and kinesthetic cues and these impacted the rats’ performances. The opposite is true about the dull rats. They underperformed because the students who were responsible for them communicated despondency and did not trust that the rats could produce anything of worth. They did so through their non-verbal cues.

Experiment replicated

Shocked by his findings, Robert Rosenthal designed another experiment to test the working of the expectancy effect with children and their teachers. If positive high expectation improved the performance of rats, could the same effect be seen, even more forcefully among students in learning? With this question in mind, Rosenthal assigned student-subjects to teachers (experimenters), a few of which were supposedly “early bloomers”. By this he meant that the few early bloomers have the potential of excelling exceedingly greater than their classmates. But the truth is – all the student-subjects were of the same IQ level before the experiment began (in fact they were chosen to be part of the study because they possessed similar IQs).

After a few weeks, a post IQ test was administered to all the student-subjects; It was found that the supposedly early bloomers scored two standard deviations higher than the rest of the class on an intelligence test. This indicates a 50% increase in IQ score among the students for whom teachers had held high positive expectations.

High/low expectation class

What does a class with high or low expectation look like? Expectations are communicated verbally and non-verbally. The following table indicates the type of things that could be expected when a class of students experience either one or both.

Positive high expectation

Negative low expectation

Verbal cues (what teachers say and believe in)

·“I am excited about teaching grade three; I know they are going to be marvelous”

·“I know you can do it; here, let me help you…”

·“you always upset me Lucy”

· “I knew you’d fail – you always do!”

· “Oh no… not grade three, they are so dull. I don’t want to teach them!”

Non-verbal cues (what teachers do and communicate through tactile and kinesthetic means – more subtle)

·Paying attention to all students

·Asking questions to all students

·Involving students in decision making

·Helping and supporting through challenges in learning and other aspects of schooling

·Negotiating rather than imposing

·Smiling and maintaining eye-contacts

·Being approachable

·Paying attention only to the bright students and deliberately neglecting the weaker ones

·Asking questions challenging questions to bright students and very easy ones to weaker students

·Let students struggle and fail in difficult task

·Separate bright students from weaker ones through seating arrangements, class grouping, etc.

·Use frowns, disgust, anger as a weapon to hit students down

What do you want?

Teachers get what they want from their students. If they expect high performance, responsible citizenship, critical and creative thinking, generation of new knowledge and solutions – they would communicate these in a variety of ways to students. These will serve as positive stimulation for students to become motivated about being their best and performing well. When students sense and become convinced that their teachers have given up on them and expect them to be good for nothing, they will deliver the exact same thing – at least they are not disappointing the teachers and their predictions. The choice is ours to make. Let us choose to believe in and value students. Let us intentionally decide to stop ridiculing and de-valuing them.

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