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Seeing The Best In People

Does how we think about other people have an effect on them? Do our views, whether expressed out loud to those individuals or not, have an impact?  Is it possible that we have the power to make people kinder or less kind, more or less trustworthy, more or less likely to achieve academic success, simply because of our view of them?

Ghandi is often quoted as saying “be the change you wish to see in the world”. But this is a reductive paraphrasing of his actual words:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme.  A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness.  We need not wait to see what others do.”

Contained within these words and the ideas expressed is the possibility that how we approach others, our way of being, might be powerful enough to change the ways of others.  So I asked our pupils whether they believed this might be possible; whether any of them felt they might have the ability to change others just through their approach to them.

The philosopher William James delivered a talk on ‘the will to believe’ in 1896, in which he proposed that things such as friendship, love, trust and loyalty become true because we believe them. Conversely, if we go around doubting others’ intentions, then we’re likely to behave in ways which make us disliked, and love, friendship, trust and loyalty will be diminished as a result.

It was a difficult idea to respond to scientifically but psychologists have tried, notably Bob Rosenthal. One of his best known experiments was conducted at Spruce Elementary School, where he split a group of children into those labelled as having high potential and those with low potential.  The children were assigned at random and there was no factual basis for the group they were placed into but the adults teaching the children were unaware of this, believing the assigned label.  The experiment showed that where teachers had high expectations of the children – believing that the group had excellent academic potential – the children made far greater progress on average than the group of children who had been artificially labelled as having low academic potential.

This became known as the Pygmalion Effect – the idea that belief (or lack of) in someone’s potential has a direct correlation with how well they perform.  And it’s not just the expectations of teachers that matter.  Where managers have high expectations of workers there is increased productivity, where officers have high expectations their soldiers fight harder.  Even the positive expectations of nurses can lead to patients recovering faster.  There is something about the belief held by another which changes their interaction with another individual, bringing about the differences noted time and again in research.

There is, of course, a scary flip side to the Pygmalion Effect called the Golem Effect: low expectations leading to poorer outcomes.  Fortunately, the empirical research in this area is much scarcer due to ethical objections.  However, it is not entirely lacking and one infamous example was an experiment which saw a number of orphans split into two groups. One group was told they were excellent speakers, while the other group were told they were likely to develop a stutter. Even though there was no foundation for these statements, multiple individuals in the latter group had their speech negatively impacted for life.

So perhaps it’s true. If we believe the very best of people, if we imagine them to be kinder and more trustworthy, maybe they will be.  Could our belief in our friends and peers actually lead to them performing better, playing sport better or achieving more? I don’t think we’ve got anything to lose, as a school, by believing this might be true and giving it a go.

We are, as a species, incredibly sensitive to each other thanks to some specific cells called mirror neurones.  They’re the reason that when we see someone laughing at a joke, we’re inclined to laugh too, even if we missed the punchline.  Or why when we see someone injured – stubbing their toe or hitting their head on a low shelf – we sharply draw breath as if we can almost feel their pain.  Maybe this explains why we are also so sensitive to the expectations and beliefs that people inadvertently communicate about us through their facial expressions, their body language and their choices to interact with us or not.  It’s a lot to think about.  If nothing else, it illustrates the enormous responsibility we have towards all those we come into contact with.

Based on the ideas from Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman, Bloomsbury, Part 4 A new realism.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey