What a stupid rat teaches us about assumptions

assumptions blog

In interactions with others we often limit ourselves to restricted perceptions based on our own biases and stereotypes. Cognitive rigidity is when we are unable to consider alternatives to the current situation, different viewpoints or innovative solutions to a problem. And we all suffer from it occasionally, particularly in emotionally charged situations.

Experienced leaders have an uncanny ability to detect strong performers versus poor ones and can often predict strong performance with amazing accuracy and speed. The downside to this ability is that those same leaders often fall victim to stereotyping poor performers as incapable of any improvement. Whether we realize it or not, we all make these quick judgments about an someone else’s ability or potential. Good or bad, these expectations affect how we interact with every member of our teams and, therefore, have a major impact on our effectiveness.

Consider your inner dialogue when working with an employee who seems to lack the capacity to execute a specific task. Compare that to when you have an employee that you perceive as naturally skilled and remarkably ‘coachable.’ How does your attitude toward them change? Our ability to impact an employee’s performance shifts based on our preconceived expectations about their skill level and capacity to learn. When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur, in an ironically self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way.

In 1968, Harvard researcher and psychologist, Bob Rosenthal, conducted a study in which he challenged test subjects to coach a rat through a maze. Some subjects had the easy task — half of the group were told they received extremely intelligent rats bred and trained specifically to develop superior maze-solving skills. The other half were not so fortunate. They were informed that the rats they would be coaching through the maze were, to put it bluntly, “stupid.”

In reality, they all got plain old lab rats with no discernible differences in any of them — they were, in fact, genetically engineered to be identical, down to the last chromosome. The “smart” rats were no more skilled at maze-solving than those receiving the dubious distinction of “stupid”. But the results of the experiment demonstrated the strong effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from the expectations of the coaches. The “smart” rats outperformed the “stupid” maze runners by a wide margin. It turns out the way the rats were expected to perform was exactly the way they were coached to do so, and as a result, their performance met those expectations.

Rosenthal went on to expand his experiment to the classroom, where he found similar results in school children and their teachers. At the beginning of the school year, teachers were given the names of a few students who had been identified as “gifted” and likely to bloom in the upcoming semester. As predicted by the rat experiment, the students who were labelled as gifted, despite being chosen at random, ended up with higher grades and developed into more successful students with the coaching and attention given to them by the teachers. Rosenthal called this the Expectancy or Pygmalion Effect. Teachers ended up interacting with students they believed to be gifted in a way that was much more likely to lead to richer development. Their expectation delivered the results they anticipated. Imagine if every child was given this opportunity to shine.

Watch those assumptions. We all make up stories about the people in our lives. For leaders, being aware of those biases becomes even more crucial. If you find yourself making up a story about someone’s ability, ask yourself whether it’s true. Assumptions can be devastating, as people will perform up or down to our expectations.

Wrong filter, faulty conclusion. Our attitude to others is influenced by our assumptions about them. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll ask whether the stories we’re telling ourselves about them are accurate or whether we’re inserting our own filters or stereotypes into the interaction. Be on the lookout for this when you are about to meet with someone of whom you may already have formed an opinion.

Performance is fragile. Leaders who unwittingly assign labels can negatively impact the performance of highly capable people. Being aware of how we perceive and are perceived by others may help us avoid the trap of the Pygmalion Effect and more effectively nurture the talent around us. Look for signs that you are labeling someone as a warning that you may be falling into the trap.

As Robin Sharma said: “Remember, we see the world not as it is, but as we are. Most of us see through the eyes of our fears and our limiting beliefs and our false assumptions.” If we can admit that our assumptions and preconceived notions are sometimes (often) wrong, we have the power to re-evaluate our interpretation of events, and make a conscious choice to consider alternate possibilities.

Advertisements