Science has proven our expectations and beliefs shapes our potential. Here’s why and how you can expend your limits and the people around you.

(Plagiarism caveat: I cribbed this story from a fascinating broadcast of NPR’s This American Life.  I provide a link to the full show below.)

Bob Rosenthal, a research psychologist, conducted a study on how expectations change potential through a study using average lab rats.  Even though the lab rats IQs were all equal, he hung signs on all of the rat cages with some of the signs saying the rat in the cage was incredibly smart, and some of the signs said that the rat in the cage was incredibly dumb, even though neither of those things was true.

He next brought in a group of experimenters and told them for the next week, some of them were going to work with incredibly smart rats and some of them were going to work incredibly stupid rats. And their job was to run their rat through a maze and record how well it does.

The results were dramatic.

The “smart” rats did almost twice as well as the “dumb” rats.  Rosenthal’s study proved that the expectations that the experimenters carried in their heads subtly changed the way that the experimenters touched the rats and that changed the way that the rats behaved. So when the experimenters thought that the rats were really smart, they felt more warmly towards the rats and so they touched them more gently.

“We do know that handling rats and handling them more gently can actually increase the performance of rats,” said Rosenthal.

And how does this play out when it comes to our expectations of people? What occurred with the rats holds true for people too, says Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford.  You may be standing farther away from someone you have lower expectations for, you may not be making as much eye contact. And it’s not something you can put your finger on. We’re not usually aware of how we are conveying our expectations to other people, but it’s there.”

And it happens in all kinds of areas of massive importance.  Research has shown:

That teachers’ expectations can raise or lower students’ IQ scores;

 That mothers’ expectations influences the drinking behavior of middle schoolers;

 That military trainers’ expectations can literally make a soldier run faster or slower.

So what does science know about where we should draw the line? Does it have a clear sense of that? No,” said Dwek. “That line is moving. As we come to understand things that are possible and mechanisms through which a belief affects an outcome or one person affects another person, that line can move.”

The story goes on to highlight Daniel Norris, a man blind since birth, whose mother refused to place the restrictions on him that society usually places on blind people.  She let him climb trees, play on his own, scale jungle gyms.

And yes, even ride a bike.

Yep, a blind kid riding a bike.  And yes, he had accidents, but none worse than any other kid learning to ride a bike or climb a tree.  Through “echolocation,” a process which involves him clicking his tongue in a way that resembles the radar ability in a bat, he was able to learn to identify objects in the environment around him to the point where he saw images in his head of these objects.  A blind man that essentially learned to see.  How is this possible?

“There is a lot of pressure to keep a child safe, and especially in a litigious society,” said Norris.  And the paraeducators [who are assigned to help the blind] can end up doing the work for the kids. [But] when you lighten someone’s load, you don’t allow him or her to expand. [Blind children] are so often discouraged . . . and become slaves to others’ perception. Slaves to what others think they should be doing. And somehow we’re [as a society] comfortable with that.”

This story is fascinating in many ways, but for now I ask you to consider:

How are your perceptions limiting yourself and those around you?  What beliefs about yourself, your spouse, your children or your employees are you holding onto that are limiting their growth and their potential?  How much expansion are you trading for safety? What subtle messages are you conveying that sets the bar too low?

Our beliefs may shape us, but we can shape those beliefs.  Let’s expand them and all grow together.


I highly encourage you to listen to the full show from This American Life.  You can find it here:

My book, The Abundant Bohemian: How To Live an Unconventional Life Without Starving In the Process is out now.  You can find it at


One thought on “Science has proven our expectations and beliefs shapes our potential. Here’s why and how you can expend your limits and the people around you.

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