Being influenced without even noticing

I love reading scientific research results. Not that I think we should believe everything that has been studied so called 'scientifically'. History tells us otherwise, but it does give solid direction and the participants in our training feast on it. Take a look, for example, at the results in the book by Leonard Mlodinow 'Subliminal' about how we are influenced by our subconscious mind, ruling our behavior.

Like rats in a maze

In a revealing study of nonverbal communication a group of psychology students was asked to teach five rats for 10 days to walk a labyrinth in a particular way. If they did well the rats were rewarded. The students recorded the learning process of the rats. What the students did not know, however, was that not the rats were subject of study, but they themselves were! The students were told that through careful breeding it was possible to breed rats that were either brilliant or stupid. One group of students was given the stupid ones and the other group, the 'Vasco da Gama' rats. In reality, the animals were not selectively bred and all equally stupid or smart. The study showed that after ten days the 'smart' rats performed significantly better than the 'dumb' rats. The students apparently (subconsciously) approached the smart rats differently, with more attention, more policy and patience. The expectations the students had of the rats, therefore, appeared to affect the performance significantly!

In practice, this would therefore mean that I, as a coach, would, quite subconsciously of course, lead a participant whom I rate smart or as 'high potential' to better performance than the participant who makes a lesser impression on me. Oops!

Nonverbal transfer of your expectations

Another group of students was asked to show portrait photo's to test persons and ask them the rate of success or failure that, according to them, spoke from each face and to assess this with a grade. The researchers gave the students only photos that were previously assessed as neutral, but they told them something else. They told half the students that in their stack of photos all faces were assessed as successful and to the other half they told their portraits were rated as failures. They were then given the order to not affect the test persons, by simply handing over the photos, reading the instructions and recording the responses. The question therefore was: Would the students still transfer their expectations through non-verbal communication? And would the test persons react just like the rats?

What was the result? All students whose expectations were raised that the faces in their photos would get a high rating, indeed received the high rating. It was even so that all reviews for that group were higher than those in the other group! Students transmitted their expectations, but how? Research shows half of this effect is due to our voice and intonation. By which other non-verbal signs the other half of the effect can be explained, we still don't know for sure.

The impact on school performance

The expectations of parents and teachers seem to greatly affect children's school performance, even when we try to treat them neutral. Researchers told teachers that an IQ test appeared to have shown unprecedented intellectual capabilities for certain children. What the teachers did not know, was that the children who were called gifted, in reality had not scored higher than average on the IQ test. A short time later, the teachers called the children that were not labeled as gifted, less curious and less interested than the gifted students. This later on also reflected in their grades. It becomes real shocking when we look at the IQ test that was conducted again after eight months. For children who had received the predicate 'normal', test results were normal as expected. But for the children who had been called brilliant, researchers got different results. About 80% scored at least 10 points higher and 20% scored even 30 points higher.

When you give children the predicate 'smart' it shows to be a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, this self-fulfilling prophecy certainly works in the opposite direction as well: To label a child as a weak student will contribute to the child actually becoming a weak student!

Our subconscious as the masters of our behavior!

This has strong implications for both our private life and our work. You will be affected and you do not know it.... We transfer our expectations to others, whether we like it or not. And often people will meet those expectations in response.

So to all managers, teachers, parents and coaches: Treat every employee, every child and every 'sports talent' as the 'Vasco da Gama rats' and give them the feeling that they will find their way to success and that you believe in it, no matter what they'll do. Apparently you don't even have to actually say so. It's non-verbal. They feel it and it appears to be a source of great strength!

Good luck!

Helen Brusselers-Gisbers & Bernadette Deitmers