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

The power of expectations


Expectations are essential: without our brain’s ability to make predictions, we would be helpless navigating our world – both physical and social. But our job is to look out for cases when expectations lead us astray and make us behave contrary to our values.

For example, biased expectations can lead us to think that a good-looking person is smart and honest (even though they may not be!); to expect that a certain women is more empathetic than a certain man (even if she’s not); that a Black jogger in our neighborhood is up to no good (even if he’s simply jogging).

Remarkably, our expectations can even influence the behavior of others – which we then take to say, “See, my expectations were right after all!”

Because we are creatures with conscious awareness and the ability to change ourselves, we can work to challenge our expectations—an important step in outsmarting bias in life and at work. Learn how expectations shape behavior and what to do about them in this set of modules.

  1. 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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    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)

  2. A drawing of beautiful, well-plated food

    The Attractiveness Halo Effect


    When it comes to food, presentation and taste are connected: the eyes eat first. The science suggests we apply a similar idea to people: attractive people are seen as smarter, kinder, more moral, and so on. It’s called the attractiveness halo.

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    “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 idea that outer beauty reflects quality or goodness is an assumption we see all around us (and incorrectly learn). Just look at some movies. “It’s a trend that dates back to the silent films of the early 1900s: Filmmakers used visual cues to distinguish between good and evil. […] The trend has continued its way in cinema, think Freddy Krueger’s facial burns, Darth Vader’s large scar running down his face, and Voldemort’s everything. Abnormal skin color, deep, dark circles underneath their eyes, and scary music are all part of the established motifs surrounding movies’ bad guys and girls.” Continue reading at Reader’s Digest.

    “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).

  3. Drawing of surgeons in operating room.

    Can You Solve the Surgeon Riddle?


    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.

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    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.