Can the way you think about a person or an event affect your relationship to that person or event?

Early in his career, research psychologist Dr. Bob Rosenthal created an experiment. Late at night he went into his lab and hung signs on all of the rat cages that labeled the rats as either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid, even though neither of those things was true. These were very average rats that anyone could buy from any institute that sells rats for research.

Dr. Rosenthal brought a group of students into his lab and informed them that their job was to run their rat through a maze and record how well it did. He explained that some of them were going to be assigned incredibly intelligent rats and others incredibly stupid rats.

The results were dramatic; they weren’t even close. The “smart” rats did almost twice as well as the “dumb” rats. But they were all just the same average kind of lab rat. The result was so shocking that he had trouble getting his research published.

Dr. Rosenthal concluded that the expectations the students carried in their heads about their rat’s intelligence subtly changed the way that they touched the rats, and that changed the way that the rats behaved. So when the students thought that the rats were really smart, they felt more warmly towards the rats and consequently touched them more gently.

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How does this play out for humans?

Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, has found a correlation between the lab rat experiment and human behavior. When we have low expectations of someone, we may stand further away from them, we may not make as much eye contact. We may not be aware of how we’re conveying our expectations or our conclusions about other people, but it’s there and it makes a difference and it happens in all kinds of areas.

Research has shown that a teacher’s expectations can raise or lower a student’s IQ score, that a mother’s expectations influences the drinking behavior of her middle schooler, that military trainers’ expectations can literally make a soldier run faster or slower.

Brene Brown defines an expectation as: “A strong belief that something will happen…the movie we create in our head about what we want to happen or what we think will happen.”

Expectations are not reality checked and we have no control over whether these movies actually come true or not.  But, your brain seeks confirmation for the movie you have created.  For example, if you imagine that a party you will be attending will be boring, your brain will seek examples of the boring aspects of the party, confirming your expectation.


“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen” Anne Lamott

Expectation Shuffle

The holiday season is soon to be upon us and it is filled with expectations.  Expectations of holiday meals, gifts, parties, of behavior…

I have a tool that can help you and your children manage expectations.  It is called an Expectation Shuffle.

The Expectation Shuffle was developed by labor and delivery nurses who needed a way to help pregnant moms manage their expectations about their birth plan. By exploring their expectations, this exercise gave the pregnant moms the ability to be flexible about the expectations they were setting about the upcoming birth.

I’m going to use the example of a holiday party to demonstrate how the Expectation Shuffle works.

Using index cards, write down an expectation you have of the party on each card.  For example, on one card you may write “the food will be delicious”; on another you may write “the house will be beautifully decorated”

Come up with at least 5 expectations but no more than 8.

Now, shuffle the index card and randomly choose 2 or 3 and set them aside.  These expectations will not happen.  Now read the remaining cards and ask yourself or your child “will the party still be fun if only these things happen?”

Put the cards you pulled out back into the pile, shuffle again and repeat.

This exercise can expose stealth expectations–what is unspoken behind an expectation; those things that you really need to happen in order for the event to feel like fun to you.  Perhaps, you really want the house to be beautifully decorated or having delicious food is very important.  This exercise gives you the tools to help you balance your expectations with reality and take control of the things that matter to you or your child.

What if you can’t control one of the expectations?  That is the best part of this experiment.  It gives you the opportunity to let go of expectations that you can’t control and focus on enjoying what you can.

This is empowering: YOU have the ability to change the movie you are creating in your mind!!

Change Expectations to Appreciations.” Tony Robbins