Expect More, Get More

Rutger Bregman’s new book Humankind provides copious examples of one of the important insights of modern social science research, namely, that when we expect more of each other, we are more likely to rise to the occasion.

As Bregman explains, part of the reason is what sociologist Robert K. Merton named “self-fulfilling prophecies”: if people expect that something is going to happen, that can make the event more likely to happen.  For instance, if people expect a recession and therefore slow down consumption and investment, then a recession is more likely. By the way, Merton’s original work in 1948 was about racism: Whites expected blacks to be strikebreakers and so would not let them into unions, while their exclusion from unions was precisely the reason they were strikebreakers.

Then there is the “Pygmalion effect” first documented in 1963 by Robert Rosenthal who went on to head Harvard’s psychology department.  The name came from the classic Roman author Ovid’s story of a sculptor whose fascination with a statue brought it to life.  What Rosenthal did was to tell his assistants that he divided his mice into two groups: one not too bright and one smart.  He then asked the assistants to time how long it took the mice to find the exit from a maze.  Surprise, surprise: the smart mice did better.  Only there was no difference between the two groups; Rosenthal had divided the mice randomly.  His point: the “special” mice were handled with care while the “stupid” mice were treated badly, and that is what produced the result.

We negotiators should apply this research to how we treat our own negotiating team and how we treat the other side.  If we make clear we expect our team to do well, they are more likely do well.  If we show that we have great respect for the other side and we are sure they will more than deliver on what they promised to do, we are more likely to get a good performance from them.

Of course, there are limits to the power of positive thinking.  Some things won’t happen no matter how much we expect them to occur.  There are limits to what people can deliver, no matter how much faith we have in their abilities.  It is usually a good idea to have a Plan B in case things do not work out in the optimistic way you present them.