Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Even invisible prophecies fulfil themselves

June 16th, 2011

We’ve all heard of self-fulfilling prophecies and most of us have seen them in action. A teacher hears that a certain child is a troublemaker, starts keeping a closer eye on her, and – who knew? – the kid turns out to be a troublemaker. A new hire is startlingly good-looking, his superiors assume he’s not a deep thinker, and – ta-da! – he’s not going out of his way to suggest new ideas. Pretty basic stuff.

What I find much more interesting is that our expectations of other people can alter their behaviour even if they don’t know we have any expectations.

Isabelle on the phoneSome striking evidence for this comes from a classic study done by Mark Snyder, Elizabeth Tanke and Ellen Berscheid in 1977. They asked university students to have a 10-minute phone conversation with a student of the opposite sex whom they’d never met. Each student was given some basic biographical information about the other, but unbeknownst to the female students, each male was also given a photo of their conversation partner.

Malcolm laughs loudlyExcept that it wasn’t their conversation partner. Each male student received a snapshot showing a woman who had been judged as either particularly physically attractive or particularly physically unattractive by a separate group of university-aged men.*

Observers who knew nothing about the study then listened to half of each recorded conversation – either just the woman’s voice or just the man’s – and assessed the speaker for various traits. There were differences in how the males presented themselves; those talking to a woman they believed to be attractive were more outgoing and expressive. But there were also differences in how the females talked: those whose partners thought them to be attractive were more confident and animated and were perceived to like their conversation partner more.

Remember that these perceptions come from observers who heard only one side of the conversation. With no idea what the male students were saying, they rated female behaviours as differing significantly depending on what their partners thought of their looks – even though the female participants didn’t know looks were even an issue.

Unnerving, isn’t it? We carry our stereotypes with us, and even when the people we interact with have no idea we have preconceptions of them, our attitudes change their behaviours.

You can imagine the downside of this when you’re trying to change the world: every time you approach people with a preconception that they aren’t likely to help you, they become less likely to help you. I suspect the answer – and I never said it would be easy – is to focus on the most positive preconceptions you can dredge up.

Pollyanna and friendsLook for hints that this person is kind or helpful or has granted requests like yours before. Think of situations just like this in which everyone behaved delightfully. Talk yourself into liking and admiring the people you’ll be dealing with. Be as Pollyanna as your blood sugar can stand.

Observant readers will have noticed that I’m essentially telling you to assume the best of people for your own selfish (even if world-changing) reasons. I’m okay with that. Perhaps, in this case, the means justify the ends.

* Yes, I’m a little appalled too… but a lot of research has shown that people tend to associate other traits with good looks, whether we like it or not, so this was a legitimate approach.

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