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What You Should Know About the Expectancy Effect

In the 1960s, Bob Rosenthal, a research psychologist, did an experiment with rats, as researchers so often do. But this time, Rosenthal wasn’t putting rats through mazes, he was using them to test the scientists. Rosenthal went into a lab and labeled all the rat cages as either “dull” or “bright." What Rosenthal soon realized was that all the rats who were labeled “bright” did better than the rats labeled “dull.”

Apparently, as Rosenthal’s research discovered, the rats who were labeled “bright” did better because they were treated better. This is called the expectancy effect. Rosenthal later reproduced this experiment in a classroom with students. Students who were given the label “ready to bloom” did better than those who were not labeled. The reality is, there was no difference in the students beyond the labeling.

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I heard about Rosethal’s research Monday morning, when I woke up early to work out. When it’s cold outside, I slip down to the basement to listen to a podcast and work out on the elliptical. My favorite podcast is "This American Life," and they were doing an episode about Daniel Kish, President of World Access for the Blind. He believes that the only thing that keeps blind people from walking around like sighted people is expectations. To reduce Kish’s philosophy: Low expectations equals low performance.

There is a lot of science that backs up Kish’s claim, science like Rosenthal’s and brain scans that prove blind people can achieve a kind of “sight.” But of course, as a parent, listening in the wee hours of the morning, which is my only time to finagle a work out before the day begins, all I could think about were my children.

How do my expectations fulfill their destiny? Am I limiting them with how I think about them?

My father-in-law’s gift to me was the expectancy effect. He expected me to succeed, so I did.

When I was younger, I begged my parents to let me join a sports team. I was homeschooled, and back in those days when home schooling was barely legal, there weren’t a lot of options for group sports. I remember my mom laughing, “You can barely play kickball!” I was never signed up for a sports team.

I don’t think my mom was being intentionally cruel. I did suck at kickball and everything that involved some sort of physical coordination—running, playing tag, tetherball, patting my head and rubbing my belly. Every attempt I made at some sort of physical activity completely failed until I was 22. That was when my father-in-law told me to start running. This time, I laughed at him. He persisted. I started running. Every time I wanted to quit, he insisted I was perfect for running. “Look, you are tall. You have a runner’s build!” I was sure he was lying, but I wanted to believe it.

I ran my first half marathon when I was 24, six months after my father-in-law died of cancer. I still run. I’ve run six half marathons and numerous other races. I run three to four times a week. I can’t imagine my life without a physical activity. It’s kept me healthy and sane and strong. My father-in-law’s gift to me was the expectancy effect. He expected me to succeed, so I did.

Part of what is so frustrating about family is that you cannot reinvent yourself with them.

I think about the expectations I have for my kids. Already, at 3 and 18 months, they’re showing personality. My daughter is a talker. My son has fierce attachments. Some parts of them are personality, but I wonder how much is destiny? At 18 months old, my son has already ripped off a cabinet door, ruined my make up, flushed a necklace and destroyed numerous books. When I look at his cute little grinning face, I expect trouble. But all of this makes me want to check myself and my expectations.

Part of what is so frustrating about family is that you cannot reinvent yourself with them. They knew you as that awkward, lisping kid, so to them, that is who you will forever be. Every time I go back home, I become that same person, awkward, quiet, ready to retreat behind a book. When in reality that isn’t me or, actually, it’s not all of me.

I am reminded of this when I look at my daughter. She is 3 and already a fount of opinions and knowledge. Recently, she’s started saying, “Aw, come on!” As in, “Mom, can you wear a dress today?"


“Aw, come on!”

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When she first said that, I laughed. “Where did you hear that?” She shook her head, “In my own brain-mind.” I looked at her long blonde hair, which she refers to as “golden” and her lips, which have always been a perfect pink heart, even when she was a baby, and I realized how much I know about her and how little I understand. The idea that she is a person in her own right constantly shocks me. It shouldn’t but it does.

She is her own self. She won’t always be the baby who refused to walk but could speak full sentences at 10 months. Maybe she will be an Olympian. An engineer. God forbid, a writer. As a parent, I want to be able to accept my kids not only for who they are, but for who they want to be. Since I don’t know what that is, I don’t want to limit them with my expectations.

Image via Twenty20/ipreitimages

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