David Epstein studies the changes in athletic achievements and how these achievements related to changes in technology, genetics, and human beliefs about the limits of the human body. What he has discovered is that our brains have a built-in “limiter”—an area in the brain that keeps us from hurting ourselves by pushing our bodies too close to our breaking point.
But recent advances in “extreme” sports have found ways to bypass the limiter, opening up a wider definition of what is possible for the human body. Athletes have begun tapping into this concept to override the brain, so that they can train harder and get faster, more dramatic results.
As human capital professionals, we can help people overcome different types of limiters that might be holding them back from peak performance on the job. But first, we need to understand where the limits come from: the Expectation Effect.
In George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalian, a professor teaches a London flower girl how to speak and act like a duchess. Because he presents her as such to the members of high society, they see her as one of them. They see what they expect. In one study testing the Expectation Effect, teachers were told that a group of students with average abilities was “gifted.” These students performed better in academic tests after a few months—because the teachers were spending more time with them and giving them more challenging assignments.
Managers can fall into the same trap, buying into an employee’s reputation for high potential and treating them accordingly. The scary thing about the Expectation Effect is that it is working double-duty. It affects the perceptions of people who are evaluating the individual’s performance, and it also influences the people being evaluated. Someone who is being treated as exceptional begins to see themselves as such, which leads to even more increased performance.
Sadly, the Expectation Effect is equally effective at producing poor performance.
Consider a case study of two little girls in first grade. One child is slower at learning to read than most of her classmates, often misspells even simple words, can’t solve simple math problems, and her handwriting is backwards and almost illegible. Her teachers label her as “slow” and put her in “special needs” classes.
In these classes, she doesn’t really get much help learning how to read, but she does very quickly come to understand that she isn’t very smart. As the girl grows older, her parents and teachers steer her to vocational courses and discourage any thought of attending college. She agrees. After all, college is for smart people. She ends up in a minimum-wage job, which is just what everyone has expected for her.
Another child exhibits the same early symptoms. Her first-grade teacher recognizes that the child is dyslexic and meets with her parents to put together some learning strategies to help her catch up with her classmates. Her family and her teachers emphasize her gifts, and encourage her to succeed. She grows up being keenly aware of how her brain works, learning to leverage her strengths and compensate for weaknesses. By high school, she’s the class valedictorian. She goes on to a successful career with an advanced degree and considers herself capable of just about anything.
That second child was me. I am so grateful to my father, who told me “you are not stupid,” and insisted that I can do anything I set my mind to. I soon discovered that he was right.
Sadly, there are too many versions of the first child’s story. You may have experienced some version of it yourself. You may have been told you weren’t good at math, weren’t athletic, didn’t have any common sense, or any number of other failings that your brain then found a way to validate. Breaking out of these self-imposed limiters can be difficult—but not impossible.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells us, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Norman Vincent Peale wrote The Power of Positive Thinking more than 60 years ago, yet the exact mechanisms that produce these results are still a mystery to us. That hasn’t stopped a whole cottage industry from growing up around training your brain and finding your hidden talents. While these programs may have some value, the clinical proof has yet to be seen.
And still I believe in the power of our endless curiosity as a species. I believe that we will harness at least some of the brain’s power to transform human performance in my lifetime. I believe it because I believe that I’ve already personally experienced it. And of course, because this is what I’m expecting, there is a very good chance that I’ll find it.