Encouragement is a superpower

Do you have a superpower? I suggest that we all do, and some of us use it better than others. Allow me to ask another question – is it possible that we have the power to make people more kind (or less kind), more or less trustworthy, more or less likely to achieve academic success? The answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’ and I will explain how each and every one of us has the power to achieve this in others.

Ghandi is often quoted with the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is, however, paraphrasing from his actual words which were as follows:

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme.  A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness.  We need not wait to see what others do.”

So does how we think about other people have an effect on them? Do our views, whether expressed out loud to those individuals or not, have an impact?  Ghandi’s words, and the ideas expressed, suggest the possibility that how we approach those around us, our way of being, might be powerful enough to change the ways of others. 

William James, the philosopher, proposed that things such as friendship, love, trust and loyalty become true because we believe them. Conversely, if we go around doubting others’ intentions, then we are likely to behave in ways which make us disliked. Love, friendship, trust and loyalty will be diminished as a result.

Psychologist Bob Rosenthal split a group of children into two. He labelled some as having “high potential” and others with “low potential”.  In truth the children were assigned at random and there was no factual basis for the group they were placed into, but the adults teaching the children were unaware of this, believing the assigned label.  The experiment showed that where teachers had high expectations of the children (believing that the group had excellent academic potential), the children made far greater progress on average than the group of children who had been artificially labelled as having low academic potential.

This became known as the Pygmalion Effect. It proposed that belief (or lack of) in a person’s potential has a direct correlation with how well they perform.  And it is not just the expectations of teachers that matter.  Where managers have high expectations of workers there is increased productivity; where officers have high expectations their soldiers perform better.  Apparently even the positive expectations of nurses can lead to patients recovering faster.  There is something about the belief held by another which changes their interaction with an individual, bringing about the differences noted time and again in research.

There is, of course, an alarming flip side to the Pygmalion Effect called the Golem Effect: low expectations leading to poorer outcomes, although the empirical research in this area is much scarcer due to ethical objections. 

It may well be true that if we believe the very best of people, if we imagine them to be kinder and more trustworthy, maybe they will be.  Could our belief in our friends and peers actually lead to them performing better, playing sport with greater skill or achieving more? Surely we have nothing to lose.

We are, as a species, incredibly sensitive to each other owing to some specific cells called mirror neurones.  They are the reason that when we see someone laughing at a joke, we are inclined to laugh too, even if we missed the punchline.  Or why, when we see someone injured – stubbing their toe or hitting their head on a low shelf – we sharply draw breath as if we can almost feel their pain. Maybe this explains why we are also so sensitive to the expectations and beliefs that people inadvertently communicate about us through their facial expressions, their body language and their choices to interact with us or not. 

It is a lot to think about.  If nothing else, it illustrates the enormous responsibility we have towards all those with whom we come into contact. At Yateley Manor, we strongly value our relationships and community. By believing in one another, holding positive views of members of our community and always being mindful of how we approach others, we will no doubt be encouraging happiness, another one of our values. Let’s all use our superpower.