Tools for Couples Happiness — 23 November 2003
How the Expectation Effect affects relationships

Do our expectations about the nature of our relationships affect their outcome? Can we think positively and convey our hopes in a nonverbal way to increase the chances for a happy union? Perhaps we can.

An article in the Wall Street Journal of November 7, 2003 reports studies done about the Expectation Effect with rats and with humans. In studies of rats, one group of researchers was told that their rats were of gifted genetic makeup, while another group of scientists was informed that their rats were of inferior intellectual potential. In reality, both groups were of the same strain. However, the “smart” rats learned to navigate the maze much faster than did the “dumb” rats.

What was observed was that the researchers’ expectations impacted their treatment of the rats. The “smart” rats were held more, spoken to in soft encouraging voice and were liked more than were the “dumb” rats. The rats responded accordingly to the expectations placed upon them by the scientists.

In human studies, the same article states, teachers’ expectations had a significant impact on students’ performance as reported in 479 studies. In sports, music, law, work and parenting, people who are expected by their trainers and bosses to do well, are more likely to live up to the expectations and excel.

The exact mechanism of how positive expectations are transmitted to students and others has not been fully explored. One can assume that non-verbal affirmations such as a touch, pleased looks, attention, and encouraging words, contribute to the student or worker’s efforts to please their coaches and supervisors.

We also know that the nature of parental expectations has a very strong role in youngsters’ success or failure in school. Research done by Gina O’Connell Higgins, a Harvard social scientist found that some people who have had very troubled childhood succeeded in becoming healthy well-adjusted adults if they had at least one adult in their lives who believed in them. Even one person’s positive encouragement and expectation was sufficient for these individuals to help them become resilient adults.

The concept of mentor, “big brother”, coach, or senior advisor is frequently used in education and business. It is a way to usher the novices into the brotherhood and sisterhood of the organization. The more experienced person supports the new recruit in learning to accept the responsibilities of a full-fledged member. It also serves as a way to infuse new people with the spirit of the group and develop expectations of performance. This system has been very effective, in part, because of the encouragement given by the long-term members’ of the newcomers. The support, trust and positive expectations geared the new members for success.

The Expectation Effect works well because it builds the confidence of the individuals expected to succeed. The need for approval prompts them to live up to the hopes placed upon them. Since most people feel insecure, the trust and confidence of mentors help them believe in themselves. We do not want to disappoint the person who encouraged us to be our best. When we live up to the expectations placed upon us, additional praise often follows, which serves as a further incentive to continue to do well. With time, we develop a stronger sense of self-esteem and continue to use it as our own incentive for more positive actions.

All humans are in need of validation. It is an essential part of self-worth. Having someone recognize our potential before we are able to fully do so is akin to temporarily “borrowing” another person’s will and determination.

Though no specific research is available yet about the Expectation Effect in relationships, my clinical experience suggest that it exists. There are happy couples who talk with pride about their early conviction that their marriage was going to endure, regardless of the circumstances. No matter how high the divorce rate climbed, they were impervious to its’ influence. They stated that they “always knew” that they will be together, love each other, and fend against life’s ills together. Their expectation that their partners will continue to be
wonderful, may have enabled them to have a long-term successful relationship.

Perhaps these couples were able to reinforce for each other their individual convictions about the strength and durability of their union. They may have spoken to each other about their determination to make their marriage work, supported each other verbally, physically and non-verbally and lived up to their own expectations of themselves and their union.

Compare these partners to the couple who entered their relationship stating “Let’s try it, if it works, fine and if not, we will get out before we start a family”. Their union was shaky from the start because the expectation of failure was inserted into their original agreement. It was more of an experiment than a commitment. Perhaps, the marriage ceremony with the public declaration of expectations does save the future of many marriages.

Visualizing what one expects for oneself and for the relationship is imperative in terms of success. Expecting the partner to be committed, loyal and loving may best be imparted by being committed, loyal and loving. Believing in your spouse is conveyed and responded to with behaviors that meet or exceed your expectations.

If we use research about the Expectation Effect in other areas and assume that this also applies to relationships, we may be wise to:

  • Develop positive expectations of our partners.
  • Visualize, trust and believe that our relationship will be successful and will endure.
  • Expect our partners to live up to their potential as good people and kind mates.
  • Transmit our beliefs in our mates and the union in words, attitudes, and behaviors.
  • Trust our abilities to live up to the expectations of our mates.
  • Live in a way that will engender our pride in our mates, the relationship, and ourselves.
  • Create a culture of mutual positive expectations to achieve a successful relationship.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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