Does it help or hinder our success if we “expect to succeed?” Do expectations cause choking? Bob Rosenthal, a research psychologist, did an experiment on rats (watch youtube video). Well, not really. He used rats, but his experiment was actually done on human researchers. This is how he did it. 

Bob labeled certain rats as “smart” and others as “dumb.” In reality, neither was true. Then he brought in the true test subjects: two groups of researchers. He gave one group the “smart” rats and the other group the “dumb” rats. The researchers’ job was to run the rats through mazes and record how well they did. The results weren’t even close. The “smart” rats did almost twice as well as the “dumb” rats. 

Bob discovered that the expectations researchers had led to many subtle behavior changes in how they handled the rats. For example, researchers for the “smart” rats handled them more gently, while the researchers for the “dumb” rats handled them more harshly. 

This finding, of course, translates to how we also “handle” people. If we don’t like someone (dumb rats), we’ll behave in subtle ways that demonstrate we don’t like them. For example, we’ll stand farther away and have less eye contact. Conversely, if we do like someone (smart rats), we’ll behave in the opposite subtle ways. 

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, says that teacher expectations can raise or lower students’ IQ scores. Other people’s expectations are constantly acting on us, making us stronger or weaker, smarter or dumber. That’s kind of scary. 

Expectations can also cause us to choke. In this Freakonomics Radio episode, Why We Choke Under Pressure (and How Not To) (Ep. 341), Stephen Dubner interviewed Sian Beilock (cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College at Columbia University). Beilock thinks “that any situation where there’s expectations for success can cause choking.” 

Beilock points our that we tend to choke more when we’re around friends rather than strangers. Why? We create more powerful expectations when we’re around friends. Our friends mean more to us and we tend to think they expect more from us. These expectations, of course, are self created. Knowing this fact can help us change our expectations. 

We can diminish the tendency of choking by rethinking how we’re feeling. Beilock  continues, “So, we know that when people remind themselves that sweaty palms and beating heart aren’t a sign they’re going to fail, but a sign that they’re awake and ready to go, and their body is shunting important nutrients to their mind, that can be really effective. Arousal doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s bad when we start thinking it’s bad, and then we just start changing our performance.” 

I’d say we can also diminish choking by thinking differently about our expectations. We tend to think of expectations as outcomes. But, we can also have process expectations that shift our focus there. Expect to exert effort, not to succeed. Expecting to exert effort focuses our attention on processes we do in the moment. That keeps our focus on what we can control. Think differently, so we expect differently, so we act differently.

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