Previously, on this blog …

My daughters used to laugh about the fact that I always seemed to find a parking space, because I always believed I would (nowadays I don’t run a car, so I don’t need a parking space). My explanation was that because I believed I’d find one, I was relaxed about it, thus when a space became free I’d see it quickly. It’s said that if you are stressed (even about something relatively trivial, such as a parking space) part of your brain shuts down; it’s part of the so-called “fight or flight” reflex.


There is a more scientific demonstration of the power of positive expectations, which is sometimes called “The Harvard Experiment” because, although it was carried out in California, it was devised by a Harvard academic, Robert Rosenthal.

The power of positive expectations

The Harvard Experiment demonstrates the value of positive expectations; of ourselves and of others.

This is because our interactions with others reflect our beliefs about ourselves; other people, if they are perceptive, pick up quickly what we think of ourselves and what we expect to happen. Surprising as it seemed when I first heard this theory, they will often try to behave consistently with what they perceive our expectations of them to be.

There is other evidence of this so-called “expectations theory” in the psychology literature: the serious as well as the more popular versions. In case that kind of stuff is not your favourite bedtime reading, this summary of the Harvard Experiment is practical proof: something which sets an example that should be (but is not) followed in every school in the world.

Dr Rosenthal conducted the experiment in 1968, in a school in the San Francisco Bay area. His theory was that children could become brighter when expected to by their teachers and he conducted a study to test the theory. All of the children in the study were administered a nonverbal test of intelligence, disguised as a test that would predict intellectual “blooming.”

There were 18 classrooms in the school, three at each of the six grade levels. Within each grade level, the three classrooms were composed of children with above-average ability, average ability, and below-average ability, respectively.

 Within each of the 18 classrooms, approximately 20% of the children were chosen at random to form the experimental group. The teachers of these children were told that their pupils’ scores on the “Test of Inflected Acquisition” indicated they would show surprising gains in intellectual competence during the next eight months of school. The only difference between the experimental groups and the remainder was in the minds of the teachers.

At the end of the school year all the children were retested with the same test of intelligence. Overall, the children from whom the teachers had been led to expect greater intellectual gain showed a significantly greater gain than did the children in the control group. (if you want more info, you can do a search under Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

Rosenthal’s work showed that having high expectations of others can influence their performance in a positive way and to a significant degree.

However there is one further point worthy of repetition. The only difference between the experimental group and the remainder was in the minds of the teachers. That “experimental group” of students, as Rosenthal calls them, was chosen at random. When this fact was revealed to the teachers at the end of the experiment, they were amazed because not only were the measurable results better, but they also reported other benefits, e.g. “behaviour was better; no disciplinary problems; it was a pleasure to teach!” The teachers then assumed that the remarkable results were because of their previously-known teaching performance. “No doubt,” said the principal, “but you were chosen at random too.”

Have the important role models in your life had high expectations of you? I hope they have. I was lucky to have three very positive role models in my younger life; my father Patrick MacMahon, my headmaster Fr Peter Murtough and one of my first bosses, Peter Mossop. All three had high implicit and explicit expectations of me, so I am sure that my behaviour reflected that (well, sometimes, anyway). All are now, sadly, dead. But whenever I am faced with a tricky situation I can ask myself: “what would PM have advised?”

Muhammad Ali and the power of positive expectations

The corollary of this is that I believe that the things that happen in my life are very much influenced by what I expect to happen. Muhammad Ali was famous for saying, “I am the greatest”, but he used to say it even before he was the Olympic champion, before he turned professional and became world champion. We in theUK are more reticent about proclaiming our talents, our strengths, our virtues, but there is a lesson to be learned from Ali.

The moral is this: I believe that if you expect something good to happen, it is more likely to happen, especially if that outcome depends to any significant extent on your interaction with others… as most outcomes do.

A traveller arrived at the gates of a city in the 14th century.

Before entering, he asked the gatekeeper: “What are the people like here?”

The gatekeeper replied: “What were they like where you came from?”

“They were wonderful people: they were friendly and generous and would share their last crust of bread with you”, said the traveller.

“You will find them the same here.”

A second traveller arrived and asked the gatekeeper the same question.

“What were they like where you came from?” said the gatekeeper.

“They were terrible people: they would steal from you at the slightest chance.”

“I am afraid you will find them the same here” replied the wise gatekeeper.

“Act as if …”

 An extension of this story is that while you are negotiating with your creditors, if you show that you expect to be debt-free in a given time, and that you’ll do whatever it takes to get there, and if you are persistent in acting that way, eventually you’ll find people who will help you. They may be employees or managers in the very companies to whom you owe money; they are just people doing a job, after all.

Why not decide what you want and act as if it were already a reality? Then three things could happen. One, you attract people who can help, as said above. Two, you get where you want, faster. Three, and most importantly, you preserve your health and sanity.


To be continued …

The above is an extract from “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”. [LINK]