Simply stated, if we hold positive expectations about another person, we will get positive results. If we expect the worst, we will get the worst.
Research has clearly shown the power of holding positive expectations of others. We get the outcomes that we expect. This is what is known as the "self-fulfilling prophecy," or the "Pygmalion effect" - named after George Bernard Shaw's play in which Professor Henry Higgins transforms a common flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady because he believed that it would happen (you likely are more familiar with the musical version, "My Fair Lady").
The power of the Pygmalion effect, first captured by psychologist Robert Rosenthal in his study of elementary school children, has been well documented as a simple and effective way to boost performance - in the classroom, in the workplace, in the military, and elsewhere. And, it can work in personal relationships as well.
In his famous study of elementary school students, Rosenthal led teachers to believe that certain pupils in their classrooms had been identified as "intellectual bloomers" - children who would show an intellectual growth spurt during the school year. In actuality, the students were randomly given the designation of intellectual bloomers, but at the end of the term, these students did indeed show higher academic achievement. Why? Because the teachers believed in them. How? Later studies showed that teachers unconsciously gave more positive attention, feedback, and learning opportunities to these students. In short, teachers were able to "nonverbally" communicate their positive expectations for academic success to these students.
Can you use the power of the Pygmalion Effect to improve, and shape, your partner’s behavior? Certainly, but the key is that you have to truly believe that his or her behavior will actually improve. Let me give you an example: I have a friend whose husband has been unemployed for some time. He keeps applying for jobs, but keeps getting turned down. After months of frustration, their collective attitude became one of disappointment and frustration. She decided to completely change her strategy, and focus on a positive outcome. Each time he scheduled applied for a job or went on a job interview, she reminded him of how skilled and talented he was and she consistently told him, “you will succeed; you will win this job!” Her positive expectations led to a change in his behavior. He became more confident and that later paid off in an interview where he was hired on the spot.
Of course, the Pygmalion Effect works in the opposite direction: negative expectations leads to negative behaviors and outcomes. Try it, and share your experiences with positive expectations.
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Harris, Monica J., and Robert Rosenthal. "Interpersonal expectancy effects and human performance research." Enhancing human performance: Issues, theories, and techniques. Background papers (1988): 1-79. APA