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Can Your Expectations Shape My Behavior?

Can beliefs about single people become self-fulfilling prophecies?

When I talk about people's stereotypes about singles, one of the reactions I sometimes get is, "So what?" Why, the skeptics are asking, should I care about what other people think, even if it is negative and wrong?

So suppose I meet someone for the first time, let's say a man, who believes that single people are miserable and lonely and want nothing more than to become unsingle. He has no particular animus toward me or toward single people in general—he just expects single people to have certain emotions and motivations. Those are his beliefs. Would he behave toward me any differently than if he did not have those beliefs? Specifically, might he somehow get me to behave in ways that are in keeping with his false expectations about what I'm really like?

With regard to this specific question about whether expectations about single people can shape singles' behavior in ways that confirm those expectations—well, there is no research that tests exactly that. There are, however, hundreds—if not thousands—of studies of the ways that one person's expectations can shape another person's behavior. This isn't dopey Law of Attraction stuff—the studies show just how the process unfolds, and it is not by "manifesting" or other voodoo.

Early Studies of Expectancy Effects

One of the classic early studies of expectancy effects was conducted by my graduate advisor, Robert Rosenthal. He told elementary school teachers that some of the students had been identified as intellectual bloomers by a test they took. The teachers were told the names of those students and led to expect that those students would do particularly well over the course of the coming academic year.

In fact, the information given to the teachers was bogus. The students identified as bloomers were no different academically from the other students. Their names were selected at random. Only their teachers' expectations for them differed. Yet, sure enough, the students who were expected to bloom really did do better than the others by the end of the school year.

That study was conducted decades ago. By now, the power of expectations has been demonstrated not just in classrooms, but also in workplaces, courtrooms, doctor-patient interactions, parent-child interactions, psychotherapy, consumer transactions, and more.

After the first 30 or so studies had been published, Rosenthal was able to specify how teachers (and others) behaved differently toward people for whom they had different expectations. For example, when teachers were interacting with students they expected to bloom academically, compared to when they were interacting with their other students:

  • They created a warmer interpersonal environment; they smiled and nodded more, and were more supportive, friendly, and encouraging.
  • They gave those students more specific feedback.
  • They taught those students more material and more difficult material.
  • They gave those students more opportunities to show what they knew—for instance, by waiting longer for an answer before moving on to the next student.

In those ways, and others discovered over subsequent years, teachers convey their expectations without ever having to say directly that they think particular students are particularly smart. Most likely, the teachers were good teachers, trying to be fair and encouraging to all of their students. But their behavior was not the same, and their students' outcomes were not the same either.

In other contexts (such as medical settings or courtrooms), the particular ways in which expectations are conveyed may differ, but the point gets across and behavior is shaped.

How Might Single People Be Influenced by Other People's Stereotypes and Expectations?

There are countless factors that influence human behavior; other people's expectations comprise just one of them. Moreover, some people may be more resistant than their peers to the expectations of others. With those qualifications in mind, how—if at all—do you think your own behavior as a single person might be shaped by other people's expectations?

I'll offer just a few suggestions here, then look for your ideas in the comments section. Maybe someone will then go out and conduct the relevant research to see what really does happen.

  • You see someone at a social event whom you haven't seen for a while. (Let's assume it is a woman for this example.) The first thing she asks is, "Are you seeing anybody?" Then, when you say no, she gives you the pity-look. (Thanks to Psyngle for describing this particular interaction in the comments section of this post.) Our facial expressions often mirror one another's in a way that can be nearly automatic. So if someone is giving you that sad-eyed look, you are probably not going to respond with a great big smile—at least not at first. So think about what has happened. Your acquaintance has elicited an unhappy facial expression from you. Maybe you even do feel a little sad at the moment—not because you are not seeing anyone, but because your acquaintance thinks your relationship status is the most interesting thing about you. Moreover, when that acquaintance looks back at the evening, what does she recall? That the first thing the two of you discussed was whether you were seeing anyone. (Never mind that she brought it up.) Maybe she also remembers that unhappy look she pulled out of you. Now she has her expectations confirmed, at least in her own mind—you are unhappy that you are not seeing anyone!
  • When you try to talk about the things that are important, meaningful, or exciting to you, she acts only minimally interested and then changes the subject. Has she gotten you to doubt whether you really do find those aspects of your life fulfilling? (Hopefully not, if you are a regular reader of this blog, but consider everyone else.) Again, she might remember that what the two of you discussed the longest was your status as "not seeing anyone," again taking this as support for her belief that nothing matters more.
  • When you start discussing people you both know, the first thing she asks about each of them is whether they are in a serious romantic relationship. (This is not hypothetical. I just saw an acquaintance I hadn't seen in years, and that's the first thing she asked about a mutual friend.)

OK, well you get the picture. What do you think? Could acquaintances, relatives, and others who believe that singles are miserable, lonely, and desperate to find The One get you to doubt yourself? Could you end up feeling a bit sad and lonely, even if you did not feel that way before the conversation began? If you don't think you would be affected by other people's stereotypes and expectations, what about other singles—could they be affected? I guess an even bigger question is how you can stand your ground and be the person you really want to be, even if others don't get it about the life you prefer.