Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

Stereotypes Are Tools That Can Shape Others' Outcomes

A holiday surprise teaches us about the power of expectations

Last October, on a solo trip to Costco, I ran across discounted tickets for Cirque Du Soleil. My wife had always wanted to see it, so I bought two tickets and thought I'd surprise her in December with them. When I got home, I hid the tickets in a book, arranged for a sitter, and wrote in our shared calendar that I'd be busy at a dinner that students were hosting for some professors that evening. I told her not to make plans for that day on the excuse that she would watch the kids.

It was a poorly thought out plan: I hadn't thought through how I'd eventually get her to come with me, and totally forgot about how we'd actually get dinner without spoiling the surprise. As the date neared, I made up the lamest story: the students, I said, had managed to book a new restaurant in the city, and that they had actually invited spouses. She wondered out loud where the students got the funding for such an extravagant affair; I shrugged. And why did they want spouses to come along? I could only muster a blank look.

To my surprise, though, she bought it-- I was able to keep up the cover story, in fact, much longer than I had expected. Even as we approached the big circus tents marked with "Cirque Du Soleil" that evening, and even as I paid for parking and stopped the car right next to the circus, she didn't catch on. It was only when I brought out our bag dinners I had sneaked into the car earlier that she realized something was up. We both got a great, long, laugh out of it, and had a great time at the show.

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Later, my wife told me that she thought that the alleged restaurant where we were supposedly going to dine was somehow associated with the Cirque Du Soleil—maybe a new, travelling French restaurant or something. Hey, why not? She had been so thoroughly convinced by the initial story in October about my going to a student dinner that she organized the rest of the new information, as it came along (i.e., as I made it up), around this initial expectation. Even though, from an outside perspective, the ties seemed like a stretch, the power of her initial expectation was so strong that she found ways to integrate new information into the chain of events in a way that made sense.

I share this lighthearted story because within it, there lies an important lesson about expectations, and specifically, the expectations we have about people. In 1968, Harvard researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted a study in which they randomly told teachers that some of their poorly performing students were "late bloomers." Surely enough, by the end of the year, these students did in fact end up looking like late bloomers—they had shown a remarkable jump in their achievement even though, in fact, they had been selected at random. Much in the same way that my wife reorganized her reality to be consistent with her pre-existing expectation, teachers in this study also reorganized their reality about their students in a way that did not violate their prior expectations of these students.

source: CCupload (Wikimedia Commons)
The simultaneous potential and danger of expectations lies in the fact that when they are about people, these expectations have the power to shape their outcomes. Just as a teacher who expects to see a late bloomer in a currently struggling student actually ends up constructing a late bloomer, so do people who hold negative stereotypes about people who are different from them end up confirming their skewed expectations. One will often hear people defending their stereotypes with phrases like, "but I have seen X people do Y thing with my own eyes!", but remember, the eyes perceive the world in the service of our prior knowledge, and our prior expectations. It is, after all, the reason why even badly thought-out surprises can sometimes work.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

 

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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