Expectations Matter – Two Words

Expectations Matter. Part 1 – Two words matter. (This will be a short series of posts.)

Check out this psychological test!

A professor doesn’t show up to teach one day @ MIT. The students are told there will be a substitute and they are each given a short bio describing their sub. It reads:

“Mr. ___________ is a graduate student in the department of economics and social science here at MIT. He has had 3 semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his 1st semester teaching this class. He is 26 yrs old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a very warm person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.”

Now, here’s the catch. Although they believed that everyone was reading the same bio, only half of the class got this bio. The other half got the same bio with two different words. The words “very warm” were replaced with “rather cold.” The last line of the 2nd one read, “People who know him consider him to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.”

After sitting in and viewing the exact same teacher under the exact same circumstances, the students were given a short questionnaire about the sub. By their responses, you’d think they had experienced two completely different classes with two different teachers. The students who got the “warm” bio, loved him. Their descriptions were: good-natured, considerate of others, informal, sociable, popular, humorous, and humane. The 2nd group with the “cold” bio described him as: self-centered, formal, unsociable, irritable, humorless, and ruthless.

Two words have the power to change our perceptions and possibly destroy a relationship before it even begins.


Expectations matter.

The example above is from the book “Sway” by Ori and Rom Brafman. I will be using a few more of their examples throughout this short series of posts. You should check out their book. It’s great stuff!

They call this effect the “diagnosis sway.” Once someone has “diagnosed” another person, it’s very difficult for them to let go of their perception and they will view every interaction with them through this lens. This is what happened to the students. The bios gave them a pre-determined diagnosis and so they viewed everything about the substitute through this lens – picking up subtle nuances and perceptions which would support their diagnosis. This is why first impressions are so important. Once someone has diagnosed you, they will see only those characteristics which will support their first impression diagnosis.

I wanted to write this series of posts because we’ve been talking about expectations in my teacher’s alternative certification classes. Teachers can be “swayed” or have the wrong expectations of a student for many reasons. At the beginning of the year a teacher may be tempted to talk to the students previous teachers to find out what he/she is like, but I’d say they should refrain. A student should have the opportunity to “start over” each year. The new teacher should be willing to “draw their own conclusions” without the influence of others.

“Stand and Deliver” is one of the great movies about teaching. This is the teacher hero’s secret. He has higher expectations of his students. He has not diagnosed them as average or incapable, but instead he sees the possibilities within them and encourages them. Expectations matter.

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