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? It’s called behavioral confirmation and if you’re interested in your own or others’ conflict behavior, it’s worth understanding.
A man gets on an elevator with his dog. At the next floor, a second man gets on the elevator, scowls at the dog, and says angrily, “Dogs don’t belong in this building!” The dog growls at the man.
Several floors later, the annoyed man exits the elevator and a third man gets on. He smiles at the dog and says enthusiastically, “You are such a cute fellow!” The dog wags his tail happily at the man.
So where does the problem lie? Is the dog a “difficult dog”?
You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.
JEFFREY KOTTLER, PSYCHOLOGIST
We can easily see that the problem lies not with the dog alone, but also with the annoyed man.
And it’s no different with humans, it turns out.
If someone expects you to be attractive, do you end up acting differently?
A classic social psychology experiment, replicated and expanded upon over the years, demonstrated that our expectations of others can cause them to behave in ways that confirm those expectations.
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.
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 the “target” (the recipient of the belief).
- The perceiver then treats the target according to the belief, perhaps subconsciously.
- 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 their 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, but also by our beliefs and moods.
How can you use this?
A powerful takeaway from research like this is recognition that the conflict behavior we dislike in someone is not simply a matter of their own flaws.
We are a factor.
When we decide someone is difficult, our own belief about them may well be contributing to their difficult behavior.
This is not just a mind-blowing truth about the complexity of human behavior. It’s also one that gives us greater agency, the sense that our own voluntary action can produce an effect.
Before we knew about behavioral confirmation, when we experienced someone’s conflict behavior as difficult, we had four general options:
- Persuade them to change their behavior.
- Wrangle them into different behavior.
- Avoid interacting with them.
- Ignore or learn to live with the behavior.
Now we have a fifth option and it might be the most powerful one of all: Adopt a different belief about them.
Two special notes for mediators
Mediator note 1
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. And behavioral confirmation explains why that’s the case.
Mediator note 2
If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you know that I have very strong feelings about treating clients as somehow “less than” or “broken” (“high conflict,” for example).
When you find your thoughts turning to pet diagnoses when someone is acting in a way you find frustrating in the mediation room, remember: You may just be helping create some of the very conflict behavior you’re trying to address.