phone1.jpgOnce, some social scientists, as they are wont to do, ran an experiment. They asked 51 women to chat on the phone with men they did not know and could not see. Unbeknownst to the women, the men were given short bios of the women AND photographs. While the bios were accurate, the photographs were not. Half the photos were of exceptionally pretty women, the other half were of women of average appearance. The bios were assigned randomly to the photos. Prior to the phone conversations, the men were asked to fill out an “Impression Formation Questionnaire.” As you might expect, the women with the pretty photos, regardless of what the bios said, were rated as more “sociable, poised, humorous, and socially adept,” while the average appearance women were rated less so; all this prior to the actually phone conversations.

Of course, once each man formed an opinion, he tended to see any and all new information in the same light. They carried their pre-formed opinions into the phone conversations and heard what they expected to hear. Meanwhile, sitting alone in their rooms, the women had no idea that any of this was occurring or of the biases that were forming, and when the conversations occurred they simply engaged in idle conversation with whomever they were eventually connected.

The REALLY interesting part of the experiment came next. The men’s voices were edited out of the conversations and the tapes played to a third group, completely independent of the first two. The third group was asked to evaluate the women using the same “Impression Formation Questionnaire” that the men originally used. Amazingly, the third group attributed the same traits to the women based solely on their voices that the men had attributed based on the FAKE photos.

What happened? The subtle but powerful effect of expectations! Once the men formed an opinion of the women as attractive, socially adept, and graceful it impacted and affected everything they did. They tried harder to impress, they were more engaged, and listened better. The women, even if only at a subconscious level, picked up on this interest, this energy, and responded more. They picked up on the cues the men were sending and took on the characteristics that the men expected them to have.

“What initially had been reality in the minds of the men became reality in the behavior of the women….being thought of as beautiful made the women actually think of themselves as beautiful and exhibit ‘beauty’ in their conversations.”

Scientists sometimes call this the Chameleon effect. What relevance does this have toward business, life, and leadership?

Who among us has not had someone who believed in us, thought we were great, thought we had potential, talent, skill, and ability? And did we not flourish? Did we not do our best to live up to those expectations? And have we not all known someone who we thought was a goof off? A living dead end? The king of klutz? Did you ever notice those people start adapting that identity? Living down toward our expectations? “When we are labeled,” explains psychologist Franz Epting, “it is easy to start acting it out as a way of being in the world.”

We teach what we most want to know. Generally, I’m a “Good Finder.” I believe in people and look for the best in everyone and every situation. And yet, I know I also have this part of me that is the fixer, the perfectionist who goes around looking for things wrong, things broken, things to fix, things to make better. And sometimes people mess up (me, chief among them——I have committed many errors and sins in my life!), and sometimes even good people can mess up several times in a row. And at a time when it may be most important for me to believe in them, call out to the best in them, I can start to lose faith. That can be the time to remember that expectations powerfully impact reality, that my beliefs, attitudes, and expectations can often broadcast to others in ways I do not always realize. And that for better (Pygmalion) or for worse (Golem), I may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How about you? How are your expectations impacting your reality? Are you creating any self-fulfilling prophecies?

Note: This story was drawn from “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior” by Ori and Rom Brafman, p.101, and contains direct quotes. The original study was titled “Social Perception and Interpersonal Behavior: On the Self Fulfilling Nature of Social Stereotypes,” authored by Mark Snyder, Elizabeth Decker Tank, and Ellen Bercheid, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (1977), pages 656 to 666.