Posted by: phynbarr | January 13, 2013



My somewhat disjointed ramblings yesterday got me thinking about expectations.  The setting of them and the having of them And possibly, how we internalise the expectations of others without even questioning them.


A long time ago a lady called Jane Elliott wanted to explore and expose latent racist attitudes in her class and devised an experiment around blue eyes & brown eyes.  It’s easily googled or you can start here –

The premise was that children were told that new research had indicated that blue-eyed children were cleverer, more motivated etc., etc.  than brown-eyed children.

What astonished her was how rapidly the children responded to these expectations.  I suppose one could compare the attitudes it exposed to the Stanford experiment where individuals were randomly selected to act as prisoners or gaolers in an experiment which had to be swiftly abandoned as the “gaolers”  became ever more violent to their “prisoners”.  So the blue-eyed children displayed attitudes of superiority and bullying towards their brown-eyed colleagues.


So far, so experimental, but think of all the attitudes we are exposed to every day.  Attitudes around colour of skin, ability to learn or sing or play a sport.  How – more importantly – why – is it so easy to absorb and reflect the attitudes of those in power around us?  And, by power, I don’t mean authorities such as the police or the courts – although it applies there too.


No, I mean the authority of being an adult, a parent or a teacher.  Unthinking words – words perhaps learned from your own parental model – parroted often enough will be sufficient to convince a child of limitations which exist only in your mind.  And now theirs.

Synchronistically a twitter pointed me in the direction of this article

which asks us to think more of the “self” not as set in stone but as something more flexible, mutable, expandable.  Something which we can develop.  Develop in to places where we should no longer say “I can’t do this / like this / think this” but “I haven’t learned to do / like or think this way YET”


To take responsibility for setting our own expectations




  1. We tend to believe (MBTI and others) that our personal character is fixed and immutable. There is an increasing amount of work that suggests that this is not so and that we are what we make of ourselves (at least within limits). It reverses what we normally see as causality in character traits – “I am shy, therefore I am fearful of human contact” should read “If I act as a brave person, then I will be brave”. The action can and does give rise to the trait and not vice versa. We make an attribution error – the behaviour or context can precede the trait rather than followoing from the trait.

    There is little doubt that we are a lot more malleable than psychologists used to think. I am reminded of one of Mary’s favourite (and to me irritating) quotes from Emile Coue: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. irritating, because it oversimplifies and overestimates the power of suggestion, and places the blame on people for not trying hard enough. (and see Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Smile or Die” for the deconstruction of that myth, and for an analysis of where it has got us ). Nevertheless, whn you look at the Eastern traditions of Buddhism and particularly of the Chinese and Japanese Chan and Zen traditions it is apparent that, just as we can train our bodies in order to be athletes or weight lifters, we can train our minds in order to be more mindful, compassionate, brave, or wise. Now, when I find myself feeling fearful of phoning people, (an acquired trait after many years of phoning senior hospital doctors and being humiliated), I will phone with confidence knowing that by doing so I hope that I can extinguish the trait.

    And just as an aside on how context can affect how we think and feel, there was a well-known experiment (Dutton and Aron: that shows how context can affect out attribution of emotional arousal.

    I obviously have too much time on my hands this morning. I am off to practice the Sax…

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