Learn how to reap the benefits of positive expectations and avoid the pitfalls of negative expectations.

A demonstration of the power of expectations

As a Calgary psychologist, one of the most famous studies I have come across demonstrated the dramatic effects teachers’ expectations can have on their students’ performance. Elementary school teachers were told that some of their students showed great potential compared with other students based on an IQ test. In reality, no such test was taken. That is, some students were randomly selected for being labeled as having great potential while others were labeled as not having this potential. Despite the positively labelled students having no genuine advantage in potential over the rest of the students, they significantly outperformed the others during the school year. This was one of the key studies which brought to the forefront the power of people’s expectations in influencing performance. In this case, the teachers’ belief that certain students would excel was enough to bring about the expected result even though there was no legitimate basis for their positive expectations.

What is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The study dramatically demonstrated one of the most fascinating psychological phenomena–a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is at work when one or more people having a belief or expectation that an event or behavior will occur results in the event or behaviour’s occurrence. In this case, the teachers’ belief that certain students would ‘bloom’ led them to behave in ways toward the students which caused them to bloom. For example, it was observed that the teachers challenged these students more, gave them more attention and displayed more warmth and encouragement toward them. The teachers behaved in an opposite manner toward the students they did not expect to do as well. They challenged them less, gave them less attention and displayed less warmth and encouragement toward them. The moral of this story: If you want to get the best performance out of someone you are teaching, coaching, supervising or mentoring, convey that you believe in them.

Enhance your own performance with positive expectations

Not only can you improve someone else’s performance with positive expectations, you can do the same for yourself. Studies in sports psychology and performance psychology show that athletes and other performers with positive expectations tend to outperform those with negative expectations. As in the teacher/student example, positive results occur because favourable expectations for your own performance lead you to engage in behaviours which tend to lead to success. For example, if you believe you will do well you will likely put in more effort, rebound better from adversity, concentrate better on the task at hand and be more relaxed while you perform. On the other hand, negative expectations will likely lead you to put in less effort, give up in the face of adversity, be unable to concentrate because of preoccupation with failure, and experience anxiety and other negative mood states which are detrimental to effective performance. In other words, a set of behaviours and emotions follow from the expectations you have for your performance. If you have positive expectations, you will likely engage in behaviours and experience emotions which lead to success. If you have negative expectations, these will lead you to perform behaviours and experience emotions which are counterproductive to success. The lesson in this case: If you want to succeed, take steps to build positive expectations for your performance.

How your expectations affect your social life

Studies also show that people who have positive expectations when they enter social situations are more likely to enjoy themselves compared with people with negative expectations. In this case, believing that you will have a good time and that others will like you puts you in a better mood. This results in your behaving in a more relaxed and friendly manner. Your positive behaviour toward others naturally brings about friendly behaviour from others toward you which results in the confirmation of your positive expectations—you have the enjoyable time that you were expecting to have. On the other hand, if you enter social situations expecting to have a bad time, that is likely to be the result. Your belief that you will have a bad time and that others will not like you puts you in a negative mood which results in your behaving in a less relaxed and friendly manner. This, in turn, brings about unfriendly behavior from others. This negative self-fulfilling prophecy in social situations is one of the challenges experienced by people who suffer from depression. From working with such people in depression counseling, I have seen firsthand how their negative expectations tend to generate more negative experiences which tend to keep them in a cycle which perpetuates their negative mood. The take-home message: Having positive expectations increases your enjoyment of social interaction and can help in overcoming depression.

Dr. Patrick Keelan Depression Counselling

How to change your negative attitudes toward certain people and groups

Have you noticed that your attitudes toward people tend to remain the same? That is, once you like someone you tend to continue to like them and once you dislike someone, you tend to continue to dislike them? Your expectations play a significant role in this attitude stability. That is, once you’ve formed a positive impression of someone, this creates positive expectations which lead you to treat the person favourably which brings about positive behaviour in return. On the other hand, once you’ve decided you dislike someone your negative expectations toward them will lead you to behave negatively toward them. This negative behaviour elicits negative behaviour from the other person to reinforce your negative view of them. The latter scenario demonstrates why it can be very difficult to change a person’s prejudiced views toward certain groups. The negative expectations created by the prejudice lead the person to behave negatively toward members of the group. This negative behaviour produces negative behaviour in response which confirms and even strengthens the person’s prejudiced views. What can we learn from this discussion? If you want to change negative attitudes you have toward people or groups, focus on your expectations.

How to get your expectations working for you: Being aware is the first step

The first step toward getting your expectations to work for you rather than against you is to be aware of their powerful influence on your and others’ behaviour. For example, if you are suffering from depression, being aware that your negative expectations play a big role in others’ negative behaviour toward you will allow you to view their behaviour in a less negative light. In turn, this awareness will give you a sense of control and allow you to take action to avoid displaying negative behaviour stemming from your negative expectations. For example, you could make it a point to smile and talk in a friendly manner to counteract the tendency to do the opposite as a result of your expectations. You can then observe the anticipated more favourable responses of others. Similarly, being aware that your negative attitude toward a person or group may lead you to behave negatively toward them makes it less likely you will view their negative behaviour in response as evidence supporting your negative attitude. This increased awareness also puts you in a better position to prevent your expectations from affecting your behavior toward them. This increases the chances that your interactions with the person or group will be more positive so that your attitude toward them may change for the better.

How to get your expectations working for you: Changing your expectations is the second step

The next step in getting your expectations working for you is to change your expectations from negative to positive. One way to do this is to focus on positive information about yourself or the other person because negative expectations frequently arise from focusing on negative information. For example, if you have negative expectations about yourself or someone you are mentoring because you are focusing on a recent poor performance, try to remember other times when you or the other person has performed well. Focus also on positive qualities of you or the other person which can contribute to a good performance. This change in your focus away from negative information and onto positive information will help you to build positive expectations. A second way to foster positive expectations is to keep your positive view ‘fresh’ by reminding yourself of positive information about you or the other person through visualizing or positive self-talk. Finally, improving your performance skills or those of the person you are mentoring will make it much easier to have positive expectations for yourself or the other person because those expectations will be based on accurate information.

Dr. Patrick Keelan Sport and Performance Psychology

The final word on expectations: Think of them like the air around you

Expectations are like the air around you. They have a pervasive influence on you and others around you whether or not you are aware of them. In this article, I have made the case that your being aware of expectations can benefit you by allowing you to exert greater control over their effects. Whether you work on this process alone or with the help of a professional, doing so can help you to get your expectations working for you rather than against you by creating the conditions for positive self-fulfilling prophecies.

May your self-fulfilling prophecies be positive,

Dr. Pat