July 11, 2005

How Expectations Affect Us

[Ed: as I said in my post yesterday, I've long been fascinated with how people are affected by the expectations that are placed upon them, by others and by themselves. Here is a post I wrote last year for the American Street in honor of Paul Wellstone's birthday that expands on this topic.]

Paul Wellstone was a remarkable man - one whose optimism and genuine faith in humanity is sorely missed these days. Wellstone believed that people armed with knowledge and the conviction that they could change things for the better should participate in their own solutions and their own governance. Paul Wellstone's life was predicated on the belief that people could be relied on to act in the best interests of a world that was broader than just them selves. He felt that his role was to engage people into discussions about what they wanted for their own lives, for their families, for their communities, for their nation and for their world. And he knew that by treating people fairly, with real dignity and with a respect for who they were and what they hoped for would allow them to be active participants in a real democratic discussion. Wellstone made people believe that they had a say in the future and that they could be part of the solution. He asked people to live up to his high expectations that they were moral, decent and humane and he demanded no less from himself.

Contrast this message with the philosophy of George W. Bush and the conservatives in power right now. They believe that people are inherently immoral - that they are sinners first. They expect people to stray from the high path unless they are frightened into being good or punished harshly for being bad. They expect people to be selfish and weak and easily led by emotion. They believe that only the morally strong are capable of participating in the governance of society. And they believe in a deterministic view of the world where God has shown his favor on this earth by bestowing wealth and power in the hands that are most capable of governing society. They believe that the moral order is reflected in the hierarchy of the society. They believe in an inherent battle between good and evil and they define evil as anyone who doesn't believe as they believe. And they believe that it is okay to lie and to cheat in order to keep order within the society because it reflects "God's will".

These two opposing views of human nature have been played out throughout human history. Rigid class structures and belief that people are bad have been found in every era and every continent. Yet, for just as long of a time and in every type of society, the belief that humans are capable of extraordinary acts of courage, decency and kindness has been a thread of hope and light that has never been extinguished. What allows for such a divergence of belief and philosophy? And why is it possible for one society to be sucked into horror (like the genocide of Rwanda?) where as in other times a society can show tremendous courage and conviction that stops evil in its tracks as with Denmark when many in the country worked to save the Jews in their midst from the Nazi regime?

The basic difference seems to be the expectations placed on people. Expectations seem to have more to do with how people behave than any other element we've discovered. And these same expectations have so much to do with the outcomes for people in their own lives. It permeates the lives of children and shapes the expectations they have as adults. Children who are treated with kindness and respect, nurtured with love and taught compassion and empathy learn to show the same for others. Children who are considered to be bad and therefore must be disciplined harshly to keep them in line find it hard to trust others or to give the other guy the benefit of doubt. How we think of a person makes a tremendous difference in how he or she behaves.

It is as if we create the person we encounter by our every interaction with him or her.

In the 1960s, a remarkable lesson and experiment was conducted in an elementary school classroom in Iowa. The teacher wanted her students to understand how racial prejudice could change the sense of self-worth and value for each of them in her middle-class, white classroom. What she did was to divide her students into two groups: those with blue eyes and those whose eyes were not blue. Then she favored the blue-eyed group over the other group in every way. She praised the children with blue eyes and humiliated the others. She told them that blue-eyed children were smarter and more diligent, while the others were lazy and not very bright. And what she found was that the children came to act as she told them she expected them to act and to believe what she told them about themselves. On day 2 she reversed the roles for the groups. Even today, the grown up students from that class understand how and why prejudice damages the psyche of those who live with it. (You can learn more about this story here.)

Just as the right has anecdotes that show since some individuals act badly, it is necessary to have harsh rules to prevent other individuals from acting badly (the welfare queen who cheats is one notable example), there are numerous other stories of where people have created wholly new and positive lives because of the belief and faith from someone in their ability to do so. One such story was how the students in a high school in East LA from a poor Latino neighborhood came to dominate the advanced placement calculus exams as depicted in the wonderful movie, Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos. Or consider the story of Eugene Lang who inspired a whole classroom of Harlem youngsters to aim for college by promising to pay for their education if they were accepted to college.

Our society is so much poorer for not having Paul Wellstone around to be our mentor and our guide. He expected so much from people and from politics. He believed that democracy was really one person, one vote and everyone had something to give to this process. And he made people believe in themselves. He gave them a mirror to reflect what he saw and what he thought they could be and they didn't disappoint him. We need to find the capacity within our own lives and our own hearts to believe in people and to walk the walk with Paul so we can stand with our fellow Americans who can and should be a constructive part of our politics. How else will we save our country and our world from the harsh and bleak expectations that the Bush presidency has created? And which attitude will best create the kind of world that we wish to leave as our legacy?

Posted by Mary at July 11, 2005 06:53 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

Pretty good stuff. Thank you.

I miss Paul terribly.

Posted by: paradox at July 11, 2005 09:15 AM