The power of other people’s opinions or bias


I had the opportunity to attend the Time Convention in Auckland, New Zealand today, which was a great opportunity to step out of my normal day and have time to think. I didn’t learn much, but it did remind me about things I know I should be doing, but don’t spend enough time at. I used my Blackberry to take notes which I emailed to myself, as it doesn’t have a notepad or Word application, as my trusty Windows Mobile and Palm handhelds used to.

The final presentation, that I very much enjoyed was from Kevin Billett who, while promoting a 2 day seminar for next week, came up with some thought provoking concepts about taking responsibility for attitudes and accepting experiences that you allow to have control over your life expectations and achievements. This set me to thinking about aspects of my experiences, particularly as a child, that have I have allowed to hold me back in some of my endeavours, but that’s another story.

He raised a topic that has interested me for many years, which is the effect that people’s expectations or opinions about other people, influence them in many ways.

There are countless examples. John’s Hopkins researchers recently found that many physicians had negative attitudes to patients with obesity problems, which negatively affected these patients to the extent that their problems worsened.

There have been many studies that show that a teacher’s expectations of their students, irrespective of any basis on which those expectations were founded, had a significant impact on their results. I recall being told, although I can’t site the source, of a university study that proved this point. If you know of the study, please share it with me.

A group of students of equal ability were split into two groups. The teachers were told that one group was of above average capability and the other were below average potential. The groups were taught the same lessons by the same teachers. Their results were consistent with the information the teachers had been given, those who they said were above average, performed above average and the others under performed.

The world of elite sport is often built around belief that people of the right proportions can become medal winning athletes, even if they have never participated in that sport before. Sir Steve Redgrave has selected people based on height, with a view to having them represent their country in the 2012 Olympics. For rowing, the expectation is that tall people have powerful levers suited to the sport. One would not think that this alone could not be enough, but combine that with the positive expectation that they will become medal winners and history has proven that this can work.

The same occurs in gymnastics, where girls are headhunted at an early age based on being short and enjoying sport. I’ve seen from personal experience that girls who are told they can do things, outperform girls of similar strength and flexibility who are told that they aren’t good enough. What I saw was the same thing, girls over whom coaches had high expectations performed confidently, had less injuries and ended up on elite squads.

Psychology 101 has always featured nature and nurture. In any country where people are to some degree living in communities featuring high proportions of particular minority ethnic groups, there is a tendancy for them to be poorly represented in professions and overly represented in menial work. Students’ expectations in these areas are low, often fostered by teachers who have low expectations of their wards.

I won’t go on with this topic. I would appreciate your opinions and experience. Have you seen this happen first hand?

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2 thoughts on “The power of other people’s opinions or bias

  1. It’s scary, but it doesn’t take a PHD to understand that people react to information they have been given and with teaching, this must apply regularly. There are teachers (and Professors) who see the best in everyone, who see the potential in them and take on the responsibility of helping them achieve beyond that. They tend to teach as a vocation. Then there are those who have burned out, or just saw teaching as a job, or didn’t know what else to do.

    I remember many discussions with teachers over compulsory staff room meetings to discuss problem students, who then were treated as a self fulfilling prophesy and performed to their expectations.

    The past is littered with examples of students who were intellectually gifted and bored, thereby not participating much in class, seen as trouble makers and spiraling down as they were given less attention or negative attention. The same often applied to students with learning disabilities such as dislexia, who were also left as being a waste of time, but when assisted, excell as other senses and skills are heightened such as memory recall.

    I could go on forever, but the point was the hope that others, like you Chris, would participate in this discussion:)

  2. Luigi,
    I can’t help you cite the reference to the impact of teachers’ expectations on students, but it reminded me of the story, probably apocryphal, of the new teacher who was given the worst class in the school.

    At the end of the first term, the rest of the staff were amazed at how well she had no only coped with the class but had motivated them to become hooked onto learning.

    When her HOD asked how she did it, she said it was so easy to motivate such an intelligent group, pointing to the list of students with their IQs in the range of 110-140.

    The HOD responded, “They’re not IQs, they’re locker numbers”

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