One of the amazing things that research is uncovering is how incredibly suggestible people are. In the book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Rom Brafman and Ori Brafman coin the term, “chameleon effect.” It describes our tendency as human beings to adapt our behaviors to others’ expectations—especially those who have power over us. We particularly tend to adapt to bosses’ and teachers’ expectations. Their expectations powerfully influence our inner movies, and therefore our motivation and performance. Also, powerful influences like these become part of our inner autobiographies over the long haul as we eventually believe that they must be right. We, of course, are also having a chameleon effect on others all the time as well.
Here’s how it works: We form certain expectations of people or events, and we communicate those expectations with various cues, including word choice, tone of voice, speaking volume, facial expressions, body language and the amount of attention we pay to something. People tend to adjust their behaviors to match these cues. This is especially true for those who depend on us. They may even adjust their self-concepts!
Dov Eden, a management professor at Tel Aviv University, decided to put this to the test. He chose to use one of the most rigorous real-world environments for his research: an Israeli Army officer-training program. He set out to test what impact the chameleon effect (what he called the “self-fulfilling prophesy” dynamic) has on a leader’s ability to increase performance. He defines self-fulfilling prophesy as “the process through which the expectation that an event will occur increases its likelihood of occurrence. Expecting something to happen, we act in ways that make it more likely to occur. (Note the misnomer; the prophecy does not fulfill itself. Rather, it is the prophet who, due to his expectations, acts unwittingly to bring about the expected event. This makes it appear to be self-fulfilling.)”
Professor Eden wisely guessed that “the leadership expectation effect” would activate a positive self-fulfilling prophesy in the officers in training. In this case, the leaders were four experienced training officers. He randomly designated each trainee as having high, regular, or unknown scores in “command potential.” However, the training officers were told that the scores were accurate. They were also told that the scores generally have a 95 percent impact on the trainee’s final course grade. Professor Eden’s researchers did nothing else, except to tell the trainers to memorize the names and scores for each trainee.
The results were staggering. Those who had been randomly given the “high” scores benefited in attitude and performance. Their test scores averaged 22 percent higher than the “regular” scoring trainees. They expressed more favorable feedback on the training and in the desire for more training. The trainers had subconsciously ignited the highly-rated trainees’ passion and performance through an unconscious belief that the trainees were superior. In Eden’s own words:
Raising manager expectations improves leadership, which, in turn, promotes subordinate performance. The prophecy is not mysteriously self-fulfilling. Rather, manager expectations work their “magic” on subordinates by inducing managers to provide better leadership to subordinates of whom they expect good performance. “Knowing” that in-group workers are most competent, the manager treats them as such and unwittingly fulfills his prophecy. At the same time, regarding out-group personnel as inferior, the manager expects little of them, (mis)leads them accordingly, and depresses their performance.
Self-Awareness Activity: The Chameleon Effect In Your Life
List a few examples of when someone said or did something that had a chameleon effect on you. Include examples that were helpful and some that were not. Write down what you think the effects of their chameleon effects on you were.
Since the chameleon effect is happening all the time, we might as well use it to the advantage of ourselves and others. Learn more about how to create a motivational chameleon effect by influencing the dynamic trio, the Artist, Caveman, and Thinker. Or see this video about how to “Get Your A.C.T. Together”