Composite image with a drawing of a beautiful statue with birds and flowers on the left and a well-plated plate of food on the right

Unit 5: The power of expectations

Guided Learning


Expectations are essential: without our brain’s ability to make predictions of what to expect, we would struggle to navigate our physical and social world. But our expectations are not always accurate because the world is not always predictable.

For example, biased expectations can lead us to think that a good-looking person is smart and honest (even though they may not be) or to expect a friend who’s a woman to be more empathetic than a friend who’s a man (even if she’s not).

But expectations do so much more: they can influence the behavior of others (which we then take as confirmation that our expectations were right after all!).

How can we outsmart our biased expectations in the interest of good decisions?

Module 1 of 3

The Pygmalion Effect


Expectations can be powerful. Even if they're never said out loud, the beliefs we carry in our minds can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

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Key takeaways from this module

Attractive people aren’t just attractive: they’re seen as smarter, kinder, and more moral. It’s called the attractiveness halo.

Listen to the podcast


NARRATOR: “…I wanted to applaud when the first plates landed on my table in the salon at Per Se: a lime-marshmallow macaron with the circumference of a nickel, resting in a dish that evoked the lopped-off end of a giant spoon, and a miniature ice-cream cone packed with yuzu curd … wrapped in a napkin with the corners, like lapels, turn down just so.”

These are snippets from a review by New York Times food critic Ligaya Mishan, who ate five courses of dessert, and lived to talk about it. Now, we can roll our eyes at the over-the-top description or scramble to look up what “yuzu curd” even is… but we probably also agree that this dessert is going to taste really, really good.

This idea – that beauty reflects quality or goodness – goes well beyond the Zagat guide.

We apply it to people, too.

The Greek poet Sappho began one of her poems with the thought “What is beautiful is good”. Is this true? If I am beautiful, if you are beautiful, are we actually better? Smarter, kinder, more moral, just… better than we would be if we looked any other way?

My intuition, and perhaps yours, is screaming No! That can’t be.

But according to the science, Sappho got it right … in a way.

Today we’re talking about the Halo Effect – specifically, the attractiveness halo – and how it can put stars in our eyes, but blind us to the truth. Welcome to Outsmarting Human Minds.

Now when we talk about good or bad people, most of us picture adults. But what about children – the little humans that run around playgrounds with sticky fingers and chubby cheeks? Do we think that beautiful children are inherently more “good”?

Psychologist Karen Dion tested this in the 1970s. She gave people a photograph of a 7 year-old and then described that child doing something bad – things ranging from throwing snowballs at another child to throwing rocks at a dog. Then she asked people: What do you think? How “bad” is this child?

Even at this age (second-grade!), looks seemed to matter. Beautiful children were seen as more pleasant and honest than less attractive children doing exactly the same thing.

So Sappho got it half-right. Beautiful people may not actually be kinder or more honest. But we sure see them that way.

This is an example of the Halo Effect: a single positive trait, whether it’s off-the-charts charisma, disarming intellect, or simple good looks becomes a halo. It adds a glow that reflects onto everything else about that person, however unrelated.

So what does this all mean? Would a joke you just heard be funnier coming from a different face? Could this be why everyone liked your idea… but only after an attractive co-worker repeated it? Would we see the new CEO as having less “gravitas” if he were shorter, wider, and had less hair?

The data suggest yes: good looks distort our evaluations. When it comes to work product, you can take the exact same performance, slap a different face to it, and chances are: it will be evaluated differently. When psychologists David Landy and Harold Sigall did these experiments with essays, they found that people thought an essay was better-written and more creative if it was associated with a good-looking writer. And if we zoom into their data, and focus just on the truly terrible essays: these were rated almost twice as high when the author was beautiful.

Of course it’s good to expect the best out of people, but the simple truth is that we don’t give halos to everyone. If we care about the quality of our decisions, we need to find ways to look past the halos around us.

One way to outsmart this blindspot?:

To the extent possible, separate the work from the person. A recent brainstorming session I was in started with everyone jotting down as many ideas as they could on sticky-notes and putting them on the wall. After 15 minutes, we re-grouped in front of this giant collage of ideas and only then began working through them. No faces attached. There are lots of ways to implement this, but the bottom line is simple: find ways to dissociate behavior and ideas from the person.

That way, you’ll see who really shines, halo or not.

Outsmarting Human Minds is a project founded by Mahzarin Banaji, devoted to improving decision-making using insights from psychological science. The OHM Team includes Olivia Kang, Evan Younger, Kirsten Morehouse, and Mahzarin Banaji. Research assistants for this episode are Moshe Poliak, Megan Burns, and Cynthia Shen. Music by Miracles of Modern Science. Support for Outsmarting Human Minds comes from Harvard University, PwC, and Johnson & Johnson. For tests, references, and more: visit



Key takeaways from this module

Expectations help us quickly navigate our world. Yet they can also blind us to the simple solutions, talent, and opportunities that are right in front of us.

Listen to the podcast


NARRATOR: Welcome to Outsmarting Human Minds, the podcast on understanding the mind to make better decisions in life and at work.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: When I want to teach people in the starkest way possible about the limits of their own minds, I often give them a well-known father-and-his-son-in-a-car-accident riddle.

NARRATOR: We’re listening now to Professor Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: The riddle goes something like this. A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene. The boy, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. The attending surgeon looks at the boy and says “I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son. How can this be?

This question was posed to me in 1985, and I thought long and hard about it, and I said, “well, the father who died in the car could have been the boy’s adoptive father, and the surgeon could have been the same boy’s biological father. That’s certainly logically possible.”

NARRATOR: And it’s just one of many answers we can come up with. The radio station WBUR recently posed this riddle, and I just want to play some of the responses that they got:

INTERVIEW SUBJECT 1: “Perhaps he meant grandson and he just left out the “grand” really quickly – no, no, that’s not, that’s not right, um…”

INTERVIEW SUBJECT 2: “The father who died at the accident was the stepfather”

INTERVIEW SUBJECT 3: “Because the father in the car that died with the boy was actually a priest”
?INTERVIEW SUBJECT 4: “It’s a same sex marriage”

INTERVIEW SUBJECT 5: “Or the dad didn’t really die…? And was revived somehow and rushed to the hospital and…”

INTERVIEW SUBJECT 6: “One of the fathers was a sperm donor?”

NARRATOR: So some of these are reasonable, others are more of a stretch – but like most riddles, the answer – when revealed – is simple.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: The surgeon is the boy’s mother. Now, duh! Why didn’t I get the answer right in 1985?

NARRATOR: In retrospect, the answer is a no brainer. But a survey conducted just a few years ago asked children and college undergraduates the same riddle, and they found two things: first, only 15% of respondents got the riddle right. And second: life experience didn’t influence their answers at all.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: Recently I was lecturing about these topics to a large group of people and I saw that when I asked the audience, “What’s the right answer here?” and a bunch of people said “The surgeon is the boy’s mother” I noticed that a woman sitting at one of the tables up front near me just hit her head on the table – [smack] – hard enough that I think I heard a sound.

So later when she came up to talk to me about this– with a blue bruise on her head I said to her “You shouldn’t have hit your head so hard on the table, when you heard the answer.” And she said to me: “of course I should have — my mother is a surgeon!”

Think about this. A person whose mother is a surgeon couldn’t get the right answer here. How can this be?

So it’s not just the “how can this be” of the riddle [laughter]. It’s “how can it be that we can’t get to the right answer”?

NARRATOR: Stories like this show us just how much our stereotypes influence how we interpret the world around us. And today’s podcast is particularly appropriate because recently, we saw the surgeon riddle come to life and make national news.

In October 2016, The Washington Post reported a story about Tamika Cross, a woman who was mid-flight when she heard another airline passenger calling for help. The passenger’s husband was unresponsive and needed medical attention, and luckily for them, Tamika Cross was a fourth year medical resident sitting just two rows away. She immediately raised her hand to offer help.

But in a social media post she made after the flight landed, Dr. Cross – who is young, Black, and female – described being told by the flight attendant:

“Oh no sweetie, put your hand down, we’re looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.” Now she offered her help several times, but the flight attendant demurred until another doctor – an older white man – offered to help.

So why did this happen? Did Cross’s age, race, or gender influence the flight attendant’s judgment? We can’t say for sure. But research shows us that we do judge books by their covers: So for instance, a study done at Yale asked over 100 STEM professors across the country to evaluate one of two student resumes for a lab manager position. Now, these resumes were identical, but the names at the top were different: one was John, and one was Jennifer. And when the candidate had a male-sounding name like John, he was perceived as being more competent, people were more excited to mentor him, and he was offered $4K more a year than if the name at the top was Jennifer.

We can all be targets of bias. And we all can be its perpetrators. Mahzarin herself has been both on the giving and the receiving end of these kinds of biases. When Mahzarin was a young professor at Yale, students often mistook her for her own assistant:

MAHZARIN BANAJI: What intrigued me is that they didn’t have any doubt as to whether I was or was not Professor Banaji. They didn’t say “are you possibly Professor Banaji?” They so expected it to be somebody not like me that they would simply ask about when he was going to be back.

NARRATOR: Yet experiencing this bias firsthand didn’t stop Mahzarin from committing the same:

MAHZARIN BANAJI: I was in a surgical ward once, getting ready for surgery, when I saw a young nurse, and I asked her to point me to the anesthesiologist with whom I needed to talk prior to the surgery. I remember her expressionless face as she said: “I am the anesthesiologist.” Her look told me that this had happened to her many times before. And of course I was annoyed that I didn’t pause to allow for that possibility. But she looked so young! She was a woman!

I often joke that such mistakes are not always highly consequential – but hey: it really isn’t a good idea to have an angry anesthesiologist working on keeping you alive.

NARRATOR: We laugh about these kinds of mistakes, but sometimes– as in the case of the ill passenger on Tamika Cross’ flight – the potential consequences can be serious.

So how do we respond to situations like this and prevent them from happening again?

Let’s take a look at the airline’s own response. They didn’t ignore the problem; they changed their policy. Medical professionals are now no longer required to show credentials before assisting passengers in need.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: Because after all, what’s the chance that someone would impersonate an MD during an in-flight emergency?

NARRATOR: In this example, the airline’s response is worth focusing on: they recognize that all the training in the world won’t keep busy flight attendants from relying on stereotypes. That in addition to education, the best solutions lie in improving the practices and policies that shape our actions. That’s how we can outsmart human minds most effectively. That’s the takeaway.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: The world of the workplace has grown so much; the skills we are seeking come in such a diversity of forms. We’ve got to be able to recognize talent no matter how it presents itself. A youthful judge? A male nurse? A female construction worker? To all of these, we’ve got to say: why NOT? We can’t afford to lose out on talent just because it comes in a package we didn’t expect.

NARRATOR: Outsmarting Human Minds is a program founded by Mahzarin Banaji devoted to improving decision-making using insights from psychological science. Support for Outsmarting Human Minds was provided by a grant from PwC to Harvard University. This episode was developed with Olivia Kang and Evan Younger. Permission for excerpts from Radio Boston was provided by WBUR.



Key takeaways from this module

What You've Learned

Our expectations are powerful. The expectations and stereotypes we hold in our minds can impact the behavior of other people. And when our expectations about a person are based on general knowledge about a group or how we’ve previously interacted with them, we may be costing ourselves and actively holding back someone’s true potential.

Test Your Knowledge

  1. The module about The Pygmalion Effect (self-fulfilling prophecy) described a study on conversations between a man and woman in the context of possibly dating. Which of these is the result of the study?
  2. What result the study on dating show?
  3. The surgeon riddle dumbfounds most people. We can’t seem to easily come up with the answer that the surgeon is the mother of the boy in ER. Which of these is true?


Question 1

What are the ways in which expectations get transmitted to others? Generate some specific ways you might communicate your expectation of another and that could create the very behavior you expect. How subtle can your communication of an expectation be?

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Our thoughts:

Congratulations! You have completed Unit 5: The power of expectations.

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Extra materials if you want to learn more

To learn more about how our minds can shape others’ behavior, listen to our podcast “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies”.

“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it.” Watch this video by Canon Australia to see just how powerful our expectations can be.

“As a novice computer programmer, I always got the benefit of the doubt – because I looked the part.” From Philip Guo’s “Silent Technical Privilege”. (Slate)

“How does the halo effect manifest itself in the business world? Imagine a company that is doing well, with rising sales, high profits, and a sharply increasing stock price. The tendency is to infer that the company has a sound strategy, a visionary leader, motivated employees, an excellent customer orientation, a vibrant culture, and so on.” For more, read Phil Rosenzweig’s “The halo effect, and other managerial delusions” (McKinsey Quarterly).

Could your face be your moneymaker, regardless of profession? PayScale’s infographic suggests: yes. More attractive NFL quarterbacks earn $300,000 more than statistics would predict (with an 8% increase per standard deviation increase in facial symmetry). To crunch more numbers, check out the infographic here.

“A change in CEO leadership is a potentially destabilizing event for any organization [and CEOs are leaving their positions at a quicker rate than ever before]. Yet how many boards of directors have an intellectually honest, unbiased, robust, and disciplined approach for executive succession planning at the ready? Not many do, and the failure to plan is almost as bad as selecting the wrong leader.” Chief Executive highlights the impact of the halo effect on succession planning.

“The presentation was so exquisite, formal, and silly, it made me feel like a very worldly child. And these were mere preliminaries. The first of five courses of dessert was yet to come.” Ligaya Mishan describes the visual feast in “Cutting Straight to the Chase With Dessert” (The New York Times).

We don’t just think surgeon = male. For the category of “career” in general, we’re more likely to associate “male” with “career” and “female” with “family”. See what associations your own mind holds by taking the Gender-Career Implicit Association Test.

“Dr. Stanford, who practices obesity medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and is a Harvard Medical School instructor, has carried the wallet-sized version of her medical license with her since 2016, when she read about a black doctor who was asked to show credentials when she offered to help a sick passenger […]” From Christine Hauser’s article in The New York Times: “‘Are you Actually an M.D.?’: A Black Doctor is Questioned as She Intervenes on a Delta Flight”

Research from Boston University shows that we still fall prey to the surgeon riddle: only 14% of BU students got the answer right. Full story by BU Today’s Rich Barlow.

“Soon there were #Ilooklikeanengineer tweets from women all over the world (and a few men) (and other creatures), tired of surprised looks when they meet a client for the first time, or arrive at an interview”. From Susan Svrluga’s “#ilooklikeanengineer wants to challenge your ideas about who can work in tech” (The Washington Post).

“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it”. Watch this video by Canon Australia to see just how powerful our expectations can be.

“I work for a plumbing company. You probably wouldn’t guess by looking at me, but I talk about toilets all day long”. Put the face to this quote here.

Next unit:

Unit 5: The power of expectations