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“So it is (if you think so…)”

Fancy a pint? How would you like a glass of beer? It’s tasty, well-chilled, refreshing and, perhaps more importantly – free! (To quote Plato – ‘If you have to pay for your pleasure, then what kind of pleasure is that?’) In addition, you are also going to be given a choice! You can choose between beer A or beer B. Beer B, the ‘MIT brew’, is special and it contains a secret ingredient! You can taste them both and make your choice. Now think: would it make any difference if you knew in advance that this secret ingredient was in fact a drop of balsamic vinegar? Over to Professor Ariely now – just watch the video…

So what is the moral? Here it is: ‘Expectations Colour Experience’. How we perceive something depends on what we expect it to be like. And this doesn’t just have to do with food and drink…

How do we perceive people? Imagine you are a university student. You are waiting for the first session of ‘Introductory Economics 70’ to begin. Then somebody comes in and says that something has happened to the professor who normally teaches the course, so a stand-in instructor will deliver the lecture. The only thing is that, because the department would like some feedback, the students will be asked to fill in an evaluation form afterwards. By way of introduction, each student is given a slip of paper with some information about this lecturer. Naturally (as this was in fact a Psychology experiment – although students did not know it) there were two versions of this short bio. Here they are. Can you spot the difference?

A: “Mr Long is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a very warm person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”.

B: “Mr Long is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”.

That’s right. The only difference is two words: ‘very warm’ as opposed to ‘rather cold’. Would that tiny detail make a difference? Of course it did. Students who had received bio A were much more positive in their evaluations later; they described the lecturer as ‘considerate’, ‘popular’ and ‘humorous’; it was as if the other students had seen a different person! They described him as ‘unsociable’, ‘irritable’ and ‘self-centred’. So much for independent thinking… 🙂  But that wasn’t all; this prejudice also affected the students’ level of participation. Among the former students two-thirds participated actively; among the latter, only one third made any contribution during the session! Apparently, two little words lost in a longish paragraph can nevertheless have a huge impact… Here is Professor Bloom explaining why this happens along with the very interesting concept of ‘Confirmation Bias’:

Expectations and ELT: So what does all this mean for teaching and ELT? It is clear then that as Professor Ariely says, very often what we expect to get is what we actually get. That means that we have a great tool at our disposal – we can influence students’ experiences before they happen! Here are four simple tips:

‘Sell’ your activities to your students: ‘And now, we are going to play an amazing game – this is one of my absolute favourites!’

Do NOT predispose your students negatively: ‘OK, I know most of you are not going to like this, but we have to do it because…’

Get your DOS or somebody else to ‘sell’ you to your new class: ‘OK guys, I am very proud to introduce you to Nick. Nick has …’ Do not do it yourself; research shows that it is far more persuasive if done by somebody else (have you noticed what happens before any speaker takes the podium in any great event? – see also: Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007 – p. 81).

‘Sell’ your students to the next teacher: You may have the best intentions when you say ‘OK, Mary is a bit of a problem; she is weak and disruptive’ but in fact, this acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1968). Instead, you can stress her positive points.

How about another drink? Expectations are extremely potent. In an unbelievable field experiment, students in a bar were given blue and red badges to wear on their wrists. Then they were given memory, reflexes and balance tests. Of course they did well as they were all sober. Towards the end of the evening, things were different however – people could remember less, their reflexes were slower and their sense of balance impaired. It was the same for both groups. The only thing is – unbeknownst to them, the blue group had been drinking non-alcoholic drinks throughout the evening! Yet they were just as ‘drunk’ as the others… 🙂 (Wiseman 2010 – p. 199).

 

 

References

Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion”  Profile Books 2007

Lee, L., Frederick, S. & Ariely, D. (2006) “Try it, You’ll Like It: The Influence of Expectations, Consumption and Revelation on Preferences for Beer” Psychological Science 17(12):1054-8.

Kelley, H. H. (1950) “The Warm-Cold Variable in First Impressions of Persons” Journal of Personality, 18, 431-439.

Rosenthal, R.; Jacobson, L. 1968. Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Wiseman, R. “59 Seconds” Pan Books 2010

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