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Only good guys win medals
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Only good guys win medals

How our unconscious expectations influence the behaviour of others.
By Arielle Domb
1st Apr 2021

In 2012, Disney released a film called Wreck it Ralph, telling the story of a video game villain who is determined to become a hero. Perceived as a trouble maker, Ralph is marginalised from the other game characters. He is frequently excluded from social events, including the thirtieth anniversary of the game. 

Watching the glare of disco lights and dancing from below, he decides to turn up to the party uninvited, sending a wave of panic across the other guests.

“He’ll wreck the party!” one character shouts.

“Why is he here?” whispers another.

“A self-fulfilling prophecy is the phenomenon whereby an initially ungrounded expectation leads to its own confirmation.”

But Ralph is determined to prove that he can be good, just like the other characters. Insisting that he can succeed, just like Fix it Felix, the town’s hero, he gets into a heated argument with Gene, the mayor of Niceland.

“Now you’re just being ridiculous,” Gene barks back at him. “Only good guys win medals, and you sir, are not a good guy”.

“It will never happen,” he growls. “Because you’re just the bad guy who wrecks the building.”

Ralph is visibly angry. His fists clench. He slams his hand down on the cake, sending splatters of pink icing across the room. 

As predicted, Wreck it Ralph has wrecked the party.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

A self-fulfilling prophecy is the phenomenon whereby an initially ungrounded expectation leads to its own confirmation. It occurs when an individual believes something about themselves or somebody else, and this results in them acting in such a way to conform to these expectations.

The idea came to fruition in the mid 20th century, when sociologist Robert K. Merton published a paper on the topic, explaining how a false belief becomes true over time by forming a feedback loop, which he describes as “self-hypnosis through our own propaganda.”

In 1963, a psychologist named Bob Rosenthal, began to investigate the role of self-fulfilling prophecy in the lab.

Next to two rat cages, he hung two different signs, one identifying the animals as specially trained and intelligent, and the other as dull and dim-witted. In reality, neither of the two groups of rats were special in any way. They were all just ordinary lab rats.

“Despite there being no difference between the two groups of rats, the rats that were labelled as smart really did perform better –  nearly twice as well as those dubbed as dim.”

But then, something extraordinary happened. Despite there being no difference between the two groups of rodents, the rats that were labelled as smart really did perform better –  nearly twice as well as those dubbed as dim.

What Rosenthal came to realise was that the researchers’ expectations about the rats’ capabilities had affected their behaviour. Rats which were believed to be brighter, were handled more warmly and gently, which led to their improved performance.

The results were groundbreaking. Rosenthal reflected: if our unconscious thoughts impact the behaviour of rats, is the same true for people? 

He decided to test out his hypothesis at Spruce Elementary school. Tossing a coin to decide which kids they would tell teachers were ‘high-potentials’ and which weren’t, he found that the pattern repeated itself.

“Teachers gave the group of ‘smart’ pupils more attention, more encouragement and more praise, thus changing how the children saw themselves, too,” explains Rutger Bregman, in Humankind. He notes that the effect was clearest among the youngest pupils, whose IQ scores increased by an average of twenty-seven points in a single year, whereas the largest gains were among boys who looked Latino, a group typically subject to the lowest expectations in California.

Pygmalion and Golem

Rosenthall named the effect the Pygmalion effect, after the mythological sculptor who fell so deeply for one of his own creations that the gods decided to bring the sculpture to life. 

Like the myth, the Pygmalion effect describes our capability to bring our beliefs to life, simply by believing in them. According to the Pygmalion effect, those who have high expectations internalise these positive labels, and thus succeed accordingly.

The Golem Effect, named after the Jewish legend in which a creature meant to protect citizens begins wreaking havoc, describes the effect working in the opposite direction. As we saw with Wreck it Ralph, when we have low expectations of someone, we treat them differently, and this impacts their behaviour. 

“We can’t help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language and our voices”

“We can’t help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language and our voices,” Bregman explains, making each other, “smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower.”

Psychology tells us that we convey our negative beliefs about people through our body language; we might stand further away from them, or give them less eye contact.  Whether or not we are aware of it, everything we do has the capacity to impact those around us. 

So how can we utilise this knowledge to bring out the best in each other?

A growth mindset

Being aware of our unconscious biases is an important starting point, but in order to actually make a difference in the world, we need to actively work to change our mindset.

In her seminal book, Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck makes the case that we need to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.  

After decades of research on the way people cope with failure and challenge, she argued that those who were unmotivated by difficulty and were threatened by change had a fixed mindset – the “belief that an individual’s basic abilities and skills, their intelligence and their talents, are just fixed traits’”. 

In contrast, those who embraced challenge and seized novel opportunities had a growth mindset –  a “belief that an individual’s most basic abilities and skills can be developed through fixed dedication and hard work.”

“When students believed that they could get smarter, they worked harder, and performed better.”

Her studies revealed that school children who had a fixed mindset were more likely to cheat to do better, while the growth mindset pupils treated their failure as a chance to learn. And when students believed that they could get smarter, they worked harder, and performed better.

This is backed up by neuroscience. Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons change with experience. When we push ourselves to learn new things, neural networks grow new connections, while existing ones are strengthened, expanding the brain’s capabilities.

Fixed and growth mindsets relate to individuals, but they also impact people collectively. Dweck conducted a study of a diverse sample of employees at seven Fortune 100 companies, and found that a “whole constellation of characteristics went with either mindset”. 

Employees at companies that had a “fixed mindset” reported that few “star” workers were valued. They described feeling like they lacked psychological safety and worrying about failing. As reported by HBR, “they worried about failing and so pursued fewer innovative projects. They regularly kept secrets, cut corners, and cheated to try to get ahead.”

On the other hand, in organisations with a growth mindset, employees felt that more positive views were held about them. In these companies, a person’s talents were not set in stone, and employees reported being happier, more innovative and risk-taking.

“Growth starts as a frame of mind, a frame of mind that can be cultivated by individuals, institutions and organisations.”

To create environments where we are able to grow, we need to truly believe that change is possible for everyone. We don’t need to be bound by labels we have been given about ourselves and our capabilities at childhood – that we are either logical or artistic, bad at maths or creatively unequipped.

Growth starts as a frame of mind, a frame of mind that can be cultivated by individuals, institutions and organisations. If we create cultures where growth mindsets are encouraged, where individuals are encouraged to push themselves, to take risks and to learn – we can unlock the potential of everyone.

How Leaders Can Cultivate a Growth Mindset in Their Organisation:

  • Change stories – Do you believe that some employees are excellent, and others are less talented or lazy? Instead of judging employees by their past performance, give each individual the opportunity to excel in the present, looking instead for potential and passion for learning.
  • Set learning goals  – Instead of focusing on what an employee is lacking, concentrate on how they can do better. By shifting from a negative to a positive mindset, employees are more motivated to push themselves to improve.
  • Make use of failure – Not all risk-taking will go to plan. In order to create an environment where individuals are free to speak up and try new things, failure should be treated as a chance to learn and adapt in the future.

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