The Next Faithful Step

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Expectations Shape What We See

CF565: Empowering the People of God

Meaning-making leadership begins with what we see--and what we don’t see. We learn early in life to filter what we see and hear, paying close attention to what’s important and ignoring what is extraneous. There is simply too much information in the world to give full attention to everything. A dog barking in the distance is irrelevant, unless it’s the familiar bark of your pet. Or, think about what happens when a teenager first sits behind the wheel of a car. When I was learning to drive, I paid too much attention to the cars parked on the side of the road and not enough attention to the Pontiac in front of me. I was sure one of those parked cars was going to leap out at me. But over time I learned that driverless cars were not going anywhere. If there was no one in the driver’s seat, I could ignore a car. And if there were someone in there, I learned that my eye would be drawn to their movement and would single that car out for special attention. I also had to learn which street signs were important (e.g. No Left Turn, or Yield) and which signs could be ignored (e.g. Garage Sale, or Lost Dog). At first, everything got my attention. Then I learned to filter what I saw. That’s when I was safe to drive on city streets.

The most rigorous driving lesson, however, takes place on the LA freeways, where the flow of traffic is often over 80 miles per hour. People come to California from Boston or New York and the freeways terrify them. In the East, it is not uncommon for someone to cross multiple lanes of traffic to make an unexpected lunge for the off-ramp. So transplanted Easterners expect it to happen on the Ventura Freeway. But that does not happen in Los Angeles. It’s not so much that there are laws against such recklessness, although there are. It’s more like Automotive Darwinism. If you drive erratically at 80 miles an hour, you die. So the LA freeways have become very predictable. But you have to know how to read the cues. That is, you have to know what information not to filter out. When a driver in front of you starts looking over her shoulder, you assume she’s preparing to change lanes--whether or not she’s used her turn indicator. And when you see three little leaguers bouncing in the back of a Volvo, you assume that the driver is distracted and give the car a wide berth. Learning to drive means learning to filter information--ignoring extraneous details but filing away the important ones. That’s how we make sense of complicated situations.

But how do people decide what information to filter out, especially when they encounter new situations? The most powerful filter for information, it turns out, is also one of the most subtle. Expectations--especially unconscious expectations--shape what we see in our worlds. You would think that people wait to form their expectations until they have enough data for an interpretation. But it is just the opposite. People organize new data to fit their expectations. Think, for example, of first impressions. We form these impressions far more quickly than we realize. One Harvard study of teachers, for instance, tried to figure out how quickly people recognize good teaching. The researchers asked people to identify good teachers by watching videotapes of classrooms. They found that people judged the teachers very quickly. People who watched fifteen seconds of video reached the same conclusions as the people who watched for half an hour.1 Then the researchers shortened the video clips. Eventually they discovered that people reached a consistent conclusion after viewing only two seconds of video. The first impressions were almost instantaneous. This is not to say that the first impressions were necessarily “correct” (good teaching is highly subjective). But the judgments people made in those first two seconds rarely changed. The impressions became self-fulfilling prophecies. This happens because, once we’ve formed impressions, we organize new data and new experiences according to what these impressions tell us to expect.

We unconsciously keep the data that fits our expectations and discard the data that does not. Studies of how people get jobs discuss this. If an interviewer gets a good first impression of a candidate, the interviewer will likely interpret the rest of what the candidate does in the best possible light. Say, for example, that a job candidate makes a joke halfway through the interview. Sometimes an interviewer will interpret that as indicating a “good sense of humor” (a positive trait), but other times the interviewer might write a note saying, “Everything’s a joke to him. Not serious about work” (a negative trait). The joke provided new data that confirmed whatever impression the interviewer already had of the candidate. What the candidate said is neither inherently positive nor inherently negative; it is the expectation of the interviewer that determines the difference. Expectations are formed quickly and they become the key for organizing new experiences.2 

The power of expectations is easily confirmed in daily life. One summer day, for example, I came back to my office at the school where I teach to find a phone message that said, “Kathy called.” So I dialed the extension for Kathy Black, one of my colleagues. But her voice mail said that she was out of town. “Why would she be calling me from the road?” I wondered. So I phoned her secretary. No, the secretary said, she did not know anything about it. I began wondering if maybe the message was from another professor named Kathleen rather than Kathy. That did not make sense either. So I put the mystery aside for a bit and went about my business. I was stumped. Later that day I saw the person who took the message. She said that the caller said something about, “Melissa’s birthday.” And then I knew. Melissa is my niece. The caller was my sister.

Two things created expectations that led me to a series of wrong conclusions as I tried to make sense of the message. The first is context. I was at work. So the context made me expect that the call had something to do with my school. And, second, my sister spells her name “Cathy.” I became confused from the very first letter of the note. When the message said “Kathy,” I began searching my experience for women who spelled their names with a K. And even when I had exhausted the list of Kathy’s who related to my job, I did not go back and re-examine my assumptions. I did not look for “Cathy’s” nor did I look beyond my office context. Once I had formed the initial impression, I kept trying to find a way to get it to make sense. Even when there was new data that told me something was wrong, I did not go back. Expectations are so powerful that we contort our minds trying to find a way to confirm them. The expectations set us on a particular path. And once we are on that path, we are reluctant to leave it.

Let me illustrate what I mean by telling another story from the Almond Springs congregation. In the first months of her tenure at Almond Springs, Rev. Charlotte Robinson met with the elders on the Worship Committee. She wanted their input as she planned her preaching for that first fall in town. As the conversation with the elders unfolded, it became clear that they were not going to have strong opinions. One woman named Margo Gold seemed to be particularly difficult to move. Finally, she told the pastor to do what she was going to do. “But this is not my church,” Charlotte said, “it belongs to all of its members.” Margo would have none of it. Months later, Charlotte found out that Margo had been opposed to hiring a pastor because she believed that all pastors simply want to grab power. Indeed, she walked away from that initial Worship Committee meeting more distrustful of Charlotte than ever. The pastor tried to make her intention to share power clear by saying, “This is not my church.” But Margo heard that as a ploy. It’s as if Margo said to herself, “See, she’s pretending to give us power. I knew she could not be trusted.” Margo expected a pastor to grab for power. And she found a way to confirm that expectation, even if she had to distort Charlotte’s meaning. A hearer’s expectations are more powerful than a leader’s intentions.3 


1 The study correlated the first impressions with other groups that watched a very long segment of teaching. The results did not change. First impressions yielded the same consensus on teaching as came from watching a long session. Gladwell, “The New-Boy Network: What Do Job Interviews Really Tell Us,” The New Yorker (May 29, 2000) 68-86.

2 Gladwell, “New-Boy Network.

3 This tendency for a person to be deceived by their own expectation is one of the many reasons why Chris Argyris emphasizes “hypothesis testing.” Indeed, he believes that the only way to test a hypothesis is to use a different set of data from the one that generated the idea in the first place. Thus, for example, Charlotte walked away from this Worship Committee meeting believing that Margo was uninterested in the preaching of the church. That was her hypothesis, one that turned out to be wrong. But there is no way she could test that hypothesis simply by reflecting on the meeting, according to Chris Argyris. Since she used the meeting to generate the hypothesis, she would have to find another situation to test the hypothesis. In other words, Argyris teaches us that the meaning we make can easily deceive us, so we have to hold onto it loosely until we find some way to figure out if we have interpreted correctly. Argyris explains the importance of hypothesis testing in article form in “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 1991) 5-15, and in book form in Knowledge for Action: A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993) and Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).