The Power of Belief: How Expectations Determine Your Performance

According to the Roman poet Ovid, the sculptor Pygmalion could look at a piece of marble and see the sculpture trapped inside of it.

In particular, Pygmalion had a vision of his ideal, the zenith of all his hopes and desires – a woman named Galatea.

One day, he began to chisel the marble, crafting it to his vision. When he was finished, he stepped back and looked at his work. It was beautiful.

Galatea was more than just a woman: The statue represented every hope, every dream, every possibility, very meaning – beauty itself.

Inevitably, Pygmalion fell in love.

Now, Pygmalion was no fool. He was not in love with a stone woman; he was in love with the possibility of his ideal coming to life.

So he asked the goddess of love, Venus, if she would grant him one wish and make his ideal a reality. And so she did, at least according to the myth (1).

The Pygmalion Effect

the-power-of-beliefFast forward to 1965. This is when psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson did an awesome experiment (2) in a California elementary school.

The purpose of their study was to show how much the teachers expectations could affect the performance of the students.

They tested everybody in the school with a fake test that claimed to predict academic blooming. On the basis of that test they then pretended to have found students who were to get smart in the academic year ahead.

The names of these academic bloomers were then randomly taken out of a hat and the etchers of the school were given a handful of names each.

The teachers were told not to tell the kids about these findings so they didn’t know in any direct way know that their teacher were holding certain expectations for them.

When they tested the children eight months later they found that those kids who’d been alleged to their teachers that they were going to become smarter also did score higher compared to the other children.

The kids actually got smarter by the mere fact that they were expected to get smarter by their teachers.

This phenomenon is what psychologists call the Pygmalion Effect: When our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.

It’s not just school children who are susceptible to this effect. The expectations we have on our spouse, children, friends and co-workers can make that expectation a reality.

Crazy stuff, right? Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we can learn from social psychology about how we view ourselves affects our achievements.

How Stereotypes Conformation Affect Our Performance

power-of-beliefIn one study researcher Margaret Shih and her colleagues (3) examined how asian women react on a math test when different aspects of their personality were subtly made more obvious.

Asians are stereotypically good at math and women are stereotypically bad at math.

The researchers found was that when they asked the asian women to take a math test they did worse when their identity as women was made prominent before taking the test. On the flip side, when their identities as asians were emphasized they performed better.

Another study by the same group of researchers (4) showed that we’re susceptible to stereotypes very early on in life. Subtly activating negative stereotypes has a significantly bad effect on performance while discreetly activating positive stereotypes was followed by a significant improvement in performance all the way from middle school down to kindergarten.

Similar studies by psychologists Claude Steele, Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer (5) found that merely recording their race on a test caused Blacks to perform worse than Whites and that simply telling women that a math test does not show gender differences improved their test performance.

There’s tons of research on this stuff and the message is clear:

Genetics or cultural differences doesn’t determine our academic performances as much as we think. It’s the negative stereotypes we identify ourselves with that do because of the limiting beliefs and anxiety they bring.

The Power of Belief

In conclusion there are two key takeaways here:

1. Your surroundings are absolutely crucial to your success. Think about the top 5 people you spend the most time with. What expectations do they have for you? Are they fueling your performance or dragging you down?

Also, are you giving you’re closest friends the support and uplifting expectations they need? What actions can you take to change these situations for the better?

2. It’s not your boundaries that determines your performance, it’s what you believe these boundaries are. We’re constantly conforming to what we think we’re good or bad at. When a limiting belief creeps up into your awareness remember that it’s just a thought and that it’s not necessarily true.

Even though I’ve seen some success with my writing, I still get tons of limiting thoughts about it. In fact, I’ve had a couple of them while writing this very article. The important thing is I don’t let them stop me anymore. I simply let them show up and do their thing. Then I get back to writing.

Do not let negative beliefs stop you from going after what you want. Always remember:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
– Henry Ford (Tweet that)

1. Excerpt from The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work
by Shawn Achor, p. 83
2. Teachers’ Expectancies: Determinants of Pupil’s IQ Gains
3. Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience and Shifts in Quantitative Performance
4. Stereotype Susceptibility in Children
5. Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap

Image courtesy of artur84 (1st image) & Paul Gooddy (2nd image)/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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