Wednesday, July 18, 2007

You are what they say you are!

I've always thought that the recent smoking ban is good news - what's not to like unless you're addicted? But I didn't predict that it would also give me a wonderful real life example of what I've always held to be true; people live up (or down) to the expectations that others have of them. So punish somebody for something they haven't done, and they'll more than likely go ahead and do it.

Here's the psychology. If you tell someone that they are a certain type of person, they automatically shift their behaviour somewhat towards being that kind of person. So tell a child they are naughty and their behaviour deteriorates; tell them they are good and their behaviour improves. It's not an overnight shift, but a refocussing of the child's attention onto certain elements of their personality, plus a reinforcing and rewarding of those elements. Result - the behaviour you prophecied, whether bad or good, becomes self-fulfilling.

Here's the linked smoking ban anecdote, reported in The Sun last week. Council warden hands out a £50 fine to a couple who looked as if they were about to drop their cigarette butts but hadn't yet done so. Couple immediately drop cigarettes. Couples' later comment "We thought if we were going to get fined, we might as well get our money's worth." Living up to expectations - you bet!

Sure, some people's behaviour needs a short sharp shock. But punishing someone - child, lover, team, or an entire society - for something they're not actually doing, and you're inviting them to do it anyway.

Call me Polyanna. But I reckon that council warden would get more results if he actively thanked people who are good in binning their butts, rather than fining people who he suspects might possibly be considering naughtiness...