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Can Your Beliefs About Someone Alter Their Behavior?

If you believe someone is aggressive, could they behave more aggressively with you than with others? If someone believes you are a hostile person, are you likely to act more hostile when you interact with them? Yes. It’s called behavioral confirmation and if you’re interested in your own or others’ conflict behavior, it’s worth understanding.

Fellow mediators are often surprised — and sometimes downright aghast — that I don’t set mediation ground rules at the start of my mediations. How on earth, they ask, do you get people to behave well?

Some don’t like my answer very much: I just expect them to.

Most of the time that’s enough. Occasionally I have to intervene and I’ve got a very big toolbox to help me in those moments. But that just sounds too simplistic to really work, right?

Well, consider this: A now-classic social psychology experiment, replicated and expanded upon over the years, suggests people’s expectations of us can cause us to behave in ways that confirm those expectations.

If someone expects you to be attractive, do you end up acting differently?

In the late 1970s University of Minnesota researchers had a hunch that people sense how others view them and start exhibiting the expected behaviors. To test their hunch, they decided to investigate the way stereotypes about appearance affect a person’s perceptions of sociability, intelligence, and the like.

The researchers arranged conversations between male and female university students. The pairs of students could not see each other, and before the conversation, researchers gave each male student two pieces of information: Biographical information and a photo of the woman they would be talking to. The bios were accurate, but the photos were fake.

Half the men were given the photo of a woman who had been rated as very attractive by others, the other half the photo of a woman rated as not very attractive.

The conversations were recorded. Later, university students who were not part of the conversations listened to the female portion of the recordings, assessing the voices on animation, enthusiasm, enjoyment, and so on.

You already suspect where this is going, don’t you?

In conversations with men who believed they were talking to an attractive woman, the women tended to exhibit more behaviors stereotypically attributed to attractiveness. They were viewed as more socially adept, humorous, and poised. In conversations with men who believed they were talking to an unattractive woman, the women tended to come off as more awkward, serious, and unsociable.

Remember: The photo the men had was not of the woman on the other end of the phone. And the women knew nothing about what was going on. Neither did the independent observers who listened to the women’s voices later.

Researchers concluded that the women had subconsciously picked up on the impressions the men had of them and inadvertently confirmed the stereotype projected on them.

The research has since been replicated using racial, gender, and weight stereotypes, loneliness, and even anticipation of hostility. In the latter study, when participants interacted with people who expected them to be hostile, they displayed greater hostility than those who were expected not to be hostile.

Behavioral confirmation

What’s going on here?

One of the original researchers, Mark Snyder, coined the term behavioral confirmation to describe the effect that behavioral expectations have on actual behavior.

It seems to happen in four stages: The perceiver adopts a belief about “target” (the recipient of the belief), then treats the target according to the belief. The target picks up on cues in the perceiver’s words and attitude, and subconsciously modifies their own behavior. The perceiver then uses the target’s behavior as confirmation of the belief.

From behavioral confirmation to emotional contagion to neural coupling, what’s beginning to emerge from research is a fuller picture of the ways we influence someone else’s behavior not just by what we do and say about that behavior, but also by what we believe about them, our mood, and even the way we tell our stories.

How can you use this?

The most powerful takeaway from research like this is recognition that the conflict behavior we don’t like in someone else is not simply or solely a matter of their own frailties or strengths. We are a factor. And just as we expect others to be masters of their own behavior, we must equally acknowledge that reshaping our own attitudes might just have more impact than we ever could have expected.

And if you’re a fellow mediator, I challenge you to reconsider approaches that teach you to treat your clients as broken (“high conflict“, for example). You may just be helping create some of the very conflict behavior you’re trying to address.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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