Imagine a rat. Nothing special, just your average, garden variety rat.
Now ask yourself whether you believe you can influence the way it moves through space and time, without touching it. Just by thinking about it. Impossible?
In 1963, psychologist Robert Rosenthal carried out an experiment to see whether he could influence the results of a group of rats learning a maze, simply by playing on the expectations of students. These students were led to believe that the rats had been bred to be "dull" or "bright". The results showed that the rats labelled as "bright" learned the mazes more quickly than those labelled as "dull". The rats were in fact completely ordinary and randomly assigned to each group.
Bizarrely, the students' expectations had unconsciously influenced the performance of their rats.
Teachers & Students
Rosenthal went on to demonstrate that, shockingly, this same effect could be extended to teachers and students - students believed to be on the verge of great academic success performed in accordance with these expectations, whilst students who were not labelled in this way did not. Carol Dweck's more recent work on fixed/growth mindset has built on his work, to show that challenging seemingly 'fixed' expectations (like IQ) can improve performance and help raise aspirations.
The Nocebo Effect
Most of us are familiar with the placebo effect (the ability to bring-about a real or perceived pleasant response, simply through the belief that something will happen). But there is also a darker, lesser-known phenomenon - the nocebo effect (bringing-about a negative reaction through believing it will happen). In one study, 50 people who suffered from chronic back pain were given a flexibility test. Half were told beforehand that the test might cause some pain, while the others were not. Afterwards - the first group reported a significantly higher amount of pain, despite enduring the exact same procedure. Many similar studies have confirmed the power of the placebo/nocebo - psychological expectations can influence physical outcomes.
The Impact of Expectation
From students to teachers, parents to leaders, the expectations that we place upon others can be surprisingly powerful determinants of future results. When we create expectations, we influence the behaviour of those around us (both consciously and unconsciously).
Perhaps author John H Spaulding puts it best:
Those who believe in our ability do more than stimulate us. They create an atmosphere in which it becomes easier to succeed.
Great expectations necessitate great responsibility.