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Chapter 10

The Rule of Expectations -- The Impact of Suggestion


If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.


The Rule of expectations uses expectations to influence reality and create results. Individuals tend to make decisions based on how others expect them to perform. As a result, people fulfill those expectations whether positive or negative. Expectations have a powerful impact on those we trust and respect, but, interestingly, an even greater impact on perfect strangers. When we know someone expects something from us, we will try to satisfy him or her in order to gain respect and likability.

You have probably heard the saying, "What gets measured, gets done." The same is true for expectations. That which is expected is what actually happens. People rise to meet your expectations of them. This is a powerful force that can lead to the improvement or destruction of a person. You can express an expectation of doubt, lack of confidence, and skepticism, and you will see the results. If you believe in someone, show confidence in them, and expect them to succeed, you will see different results. Author John H. Spalding expressed the thought this way: "Those who believe in our ability do more than stimulate us. They create for us an atmosphere in which it becomes easier to succeed."[1] When you create expectations, you change people's behavior. Whenever you label specific behaviors or characteristics, the action is expected. When those expectations are not met, you can see anger, disgust, surprise, or dissatisfaction.

We communicate our expectations in a variety of ways. It may be through our language, our voice inflections, or our body language. Think of a time when you've been introduced to someone. Usually, if they introduce themselves by their first name, then you do the same. If they give their first and last name, you do likewise. Whether you realize it or not, you accept cues from others regarding their expectations and you act accordingly. Similarly, we all unknowingly send out our own cues and expectations. The power is in using the Rule of Expectations consciously!

Numerous studies have shown how the Rule of Expectations dramatically influences people's performance. For example, in one study, girls who were told they would perform poorly on a math test did perform poorly. In another, assembly line workers who were told their job was complex performed less efficiently at the same task than those who were told it was simple. Another case study demonstrated that adults who were given complex mazes solved them faster when told they were based on a grade-school level of difficulty.

By adding the Rule of Expectations to your persuasive repertoire, you can change your audience's expectations of you — and their expectation to buy your product, service or idea — and you will be infinitely more persuasive.

Most of us have heard about the famous Pavlov dog experiments. Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist who won a Nobel Prize, trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a buzzer. The training was effective because the dogs had learned to expect food when they heard the buzzer — the Rule of Expectations. The dogs behaved in a certain way because the Rule of Expectations was at work. Shockingly reminiscent of Pavlov's experiments, the Rule of Expectations has been used ever since in advertising to make humans salivate when viewing a commercial or thinking of a certain brand of food.

[1]John Maxwell and Jim Dornan, Becoming a Person of Influence (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers), p. 64.

Expectations as Assumptions: Expect with Confidence

Often our expectations are based on the assumptions we have about people or groups of people. The same is true of us. Have you ever noticed how your expectations become reality in your personal life? Expectation is literally a self-fulfilling prophecy. We do this consciously and subconsciously. Remember the kid in grade school who was always really rowdy and disruptive? Sometimes if people already assume they are perceived a certain way, then that is indeed exactly how they will act, even if they don't mean to. The rowdy kid in grade school knew everyone perceived him as disruptive, and so he was. The teacher expected bad behavior, and the expectations were fulfilled.

Consider the profound impact this can have in your own life. Are the assumptions and expectations you have about yourself liberating or victimizing? There are countless examples of "self-fulfilling prophecies," or the Rule of Expectations at work in everyday life. Ever notice how people who think they're going to be fired suddenly experience a drop in the quality and enthusiasm for their work? Then what happens? They get fired! Their belief causes them to act a certain way, and those expectations then work to bring about the very thing that at first was only a figment of their imagination.

In another study, second graders listened to statements from their teachers before taking a math test. There were three types of statements: expectation, persuasion, or reinforcement. The expectation statements went something like, "You know your math really well!" or "You work really hard at your math." Persuasion statements involved sentences like, "You should be good at math." or "You should be getting better math grades." Finally, for the reinforcement statements, teachers said things like, "I'm really happy about your progress" or "This is excellent work!" Now, what do you think the results were? The scores were the highest in the "expectation" category! Why were the expectation statements the most effective? They created personal assumptions within each student. Those assumptions conditioned the actual external results.[2]

[2]R. L. Miller, P. Brickman, and D. Bolen, "Attribution vs. Persuasion As a Means for Modifying Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3: 430–441.

Expectations of Others Affect Behavior

The expectations we create for others often become reality. This can have interesting effects when applied out in the real world. This section contains multiple examples of how expectations have changed the lives and persuaded the behavior of other individuals.

School Teachers

Under the umbrella of expectations, teachers can be the greatest asset or the greatest negative influence in a child's life. We know what happens when a teacher labels a student a "troublemaker" because it creates certain expectations for the student's actions. We have seen the labels "slow learner," "stupid," and "ADD" become projections for a student's future academic success. There is the story of the substitute teacher who came to class and found a note from the regular teacher labeling one of her students as a troublemaker and another as helpful. The substitute teacher began the class looking for these two students. When she found them, she treated them accordingly. However, when the teacher returned, she was amazed when she discovered the substitute felt the troublemaker was helpful and the helper was trouble. She had gotten them mixed up! The children's behavior was based on the substitute's expectations. This is often called social labeling. People tend to live up to the positive or negative label bestowed on them.[3]

We have all had teachers who had high expectations of us and brought us to the next level. Can you imagine how powerful this becomes? Imagine the first day of class as the teacher looks around the room at her students. What if there is a student who is the son of a distinguished Asian professor, another one who it the brother of a former student who was a class clown, and one who is heavily pierced and wearing all black? What do you think her assumptions and expectations would be? Her expectations would probably be fulfilled without ever even speaking to the students.

One interesting experiment revealed how teachers' expectations influenced students. Two Head Start teachers were selected who were as equal as possible in potential and in practice. Then, two classes were formed from pupils who had been carefully tested to ensure that they were as similar as possible in background and learning potential. Next, the principal spoke with each teacher alone. He told the first teacher how fortunate she was. "You have a class of high potential pupils this year! Just don't stand in their way. They're racers and ready to run." The second teacher was told, "I'm sorry about your pupils this year. But you can't expect top students every year. Just do the best you can. We'll be understanding, regardless of the results." At the end of the year, the two classes were tested again. The first class scored significantly ahead of the second.[4] The major differentiating factor appeared to be each teacher's expectations.

Grubby Day

Many schools have "dress-up days," where, for example, students can dress up for Halloween, Spirit Day, Pajama Day, or Fifties Day. In one high school, they had a "Grubby Day." As you can imagine, on this particular day, the student behavior was less than outstanding. The administration received more complaints about student behavior on this day than on any other. The dress code set up certain assumptions, which further set up certain expectations. Then, of course, the expectations were fulfilled by the bad behavior.


We know that children tend to put their trash directly on the floor. In one elementary school, students were given individually wrapped pieces of candy. Of course, most of the wrappers ended up on the floor and not in the garbage can. Over the next two weeks, the teacher frequently commented on how neat and tidy the children were. On a visit to the classroom, the principal remarked to the children that their classroom was one of the neatest and cleanest in the school. Even the custodian wrote a note on the blackboard telling the children how clean and tidy their classroom was. At the end of the two weeks, the children were given individually wrapped pieces of candy again. This time, most of the wrappers ended up in the trash can.[5]

Parental Expectation

One thing you notice with toddlers and small children is that they behave according to the expectations of their parents. When I was single, I noticed that when children fell down or bumped their heads while running and playing, they would look at their parents so they would know how to react. If the parents showed great concern and pain in their eyes, the children would start to cry in an effort to get the attention they wanted. This would happen regardless of whether the child really felt pain or not.

One of the techniques my wife and I tried as new parents was the exact opposite of this approach. We changed the expectation, and it has worked great! When our children hit their heads or get a small scrape, they look up to us and we all laugh. The amazing thing that happens is that they begin to laugh too. They realize it's not a big deal and go off to resume their activities, often laughing with us. Children act based on the expectations of their parents. You create the expectations in your voice, in your actions, and with the words you use.

Studies show that children will live up to the expectations of their parents whether those expectations are positive or negative. According to Bill Glass, over 90 percent of prison inmates were told by parents while growing up, "They're going to put you in jail."[6]

Blood Drive

When blood drive organizers make reminder calls, they may end their conversations with something like, "We'll see you tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. then, okay?" and then wait for the person's commitment. Why do they do this? Studies have shown that when you create an expectation, attendance rates dramatically increase.

Sales Applications

The power of suggestion can also be extremely effective when you engage the emotions in your tactics. For example, when your car salesman says, "You're really going to love how this car handles in the mountains," he is shifting the focus away from the sale and creating an exciting image in your head. He is also speaking as though you had already agreed to the sale because you wouldn't be driving it in the mountains unless you were going to buy it. He's acting like it's a done deal — and the truth is, the more he does this, the more it is!

I love seeing door-to-door salespeople use this law to their advantage. They approach a door, ring the bell, and with a big smile tell the prospect they have a great presentation that person needs to see. Of course, they employ this strategy while they are wiping their feet on the person's doormat in expectation of being let in the house. You would be surprised how often this technique actually works. You see the salesperson handing the prospect his pen in expectation of signing the contract. Have you ever felt bad leaving a store or situation where you have not bought something? The store has created the expectation that you would make a purchase.

[3]R. E. Kraut, "Effects of Social Labeling on Giving to Charity," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 9: 551–562.

[4]Kenneth Erickson, The Power of Praise (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), p. 56.

[5]Miller, Brickman, and Bolen, "Attribution vs. Persuasion."

[6]Maxwell and Dornan, Becoming a Person of Influence, p. 63.

[17]Worchel, Arnold, and Baker, "The Effect of Censorship on Attitude Change."

Presupposition: Assuming the Sale

Using expectations, we can create immediate reactions to stimuli so the subject doesn't even have to think — they just perform the action. Discounts, closeouts, going out of business sales, and coupons are used to draw traffic to stores. Consumers assume they will receive a reduced purchase price by presenting the coupon or by going to a "going out of business sale." One tire company made an error in printing their coupon and the misprinted coupon offered no savings to recipients. However, this coupon produced just as much customer response as did the error-free coupon.[ 7]

Presupposition is often utilized by using words and language that indicate your assumption that your offer has already been accepted. It is a technique that is used both consciously and subconsciously. Consider the following examples (the assumption is expressed in parentheses):

"When do you want your couch sent?" (You want the couch.)

"Should I call you Tuesday or Wednesday?" (You want to talk again.)

"Your first class will start next Monday." (You're signing up for the class.)

You'd be amazed how often people will just go along with your proposal! They don't even stop and think about their response because now they're already finishing the deal in their mind!

Another way to use presupposition is to put it in writing. People always think that if something's in writing, then it must be true. We often go along with something without questioning it, just because it's what the directions say to do. For example, a particular "candid camera" stunt involved a stop sign placed on a sidewalk, even though there was no reason to stop there. The sign was in an odd place and there was no danger of oncoming traffic, but everyone obediently stopped and waited at the sign, just because it said to do so! In another spoof, a sign reading "Delaware Closed" actually made people start asking for how long Delaware was going to be closed![8]

[7]Robert Cialdini, The Psychology of Influence (New York: Quill), p. 7.

[8]Roger Dawson, The Secrets of Power Persuasion (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall), p. 29.

The Placebo Effect: Persuasive Suggestions

One form that expectations can take is in the shape of a placebo. A placebo is a nonmedicinal substance that is given to patients so they believe they are receiving medicine. Placebos were used during the Korean War when MASH units ran out of morphine. When medical workers gave wounded soldiers placebos, 25 percent of the soldiers reported a reduction in pain. The placebo works because the expectation that the "medicine" will help is so strong that our brains actually translate it into reality. In some studies, placebos worked 25 percent to 40 percent of the time![9]

Not only can our expectations make us well, but they can also make us sick. You may think, "I feel the flu coming on," and you will probably get it. Or if one of your coworkers says, "You look terrible. Are you coming down with something?" you probably will. Expectations have also been related to the occurrence and timing of death. Most elderly people view nursing homes as the end of the line, the last step in life. After admission to the nursing home, mortality rates, for both men and women, double compared to people of the same age and health still living in their own homes.

The Nazi concentration camps fed off of the psychological expectation of death. Prison guards instilled hopelessness in prisoners. They created a psychological environment whereby the prisoners came to expect no chance at survival. Prisoners exhibited powerlessness, an inability to cope, and a diminished will to live — in a sense, a self-imposed death sentence.

One amazing example of the placebo effect occurred in Israel in 1991. Israeli citizens were seen wearing gas masks during scud bombings. Shortly thereafter, hospitals reported dozens of people complaining of symptoms from weapons that were never used. The gas masks were just a form of protection in case of chemical or biological warfare, but just seeing others wearing one caused people to become ill!

I have even used the placebo effect on my daughter. At times, she has trouble sleeping at night and needs a little nudge. I tell her I have a special pill (vitamin) that will put her right to sleep in five minutes. Without fail, she is happily sleeping before the five minutes are up.

[9]Wilson Bryan, The Age of Manipulation (Lanham, Md.: Madison Books), p. 189.

Time Expectations

In our modern world, we are bound by time. This being the case, we have certain expectations about how time works and how long it will take us to accomplish something. Often, time becomes distorted through our perceptions and expectations. Why do some afternoons speed by faster than others? And why do we finish projects one minute before our deadline?

Parkinson's Law states that work expands to fill the time available. So, if a project is given a three-month deadline, it will take the full three months to complete. If that very same project is given a six-month timeframe, it will still take the full six months. It may sound strange, but the law has bearing because the time allotted for completion sets our expectations. It is actually our expectations that influence how we will work on a project and therefore when it will be completed. Ever notice how there's a sudden burst of activity right before the deadline appears? We all have the tendency to procrastinate, waiting until the deadline to do most of the work. This is why it is often effective to set multiple deadlines for large projects. Projects without deadlines never seem to be accomplished, no matter how good the intentions are.

Reputation Expectations

The most effective psychological tool for getting someone to follow through is to let him know that you believe he is the type of person who will follow through. Using phrases such as "You're the kind of person who . . ." or "You've always impressed me with your ability to . . ." or "I've always liked the fact that you . . ." invoke the powerful psychological Rule of internal consistency. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest masters in dealing with people, said, "I have found that the best way to get another to acquire a virtue, is to impute it to him."

When people are aware of the good or bad opinions other people have about them, they usually live up to those opinions. This is why we act out the roles assigned to us. If we receive praise, we want to be worthy of that praise. There was a police officer who always seemed to be able to get even the toughest criminals to open up and tell him everything. His technique was to tell the criminal, "I know you have a reputation for being the tough guy who's been in a lot of trouble, but everyone tells me the one thing that stands out about you is that you never lie. They tell me that whatever you say, it's always the truth, no matter what."

Honestly assess how you think you make others feel when they're around you. Do you make them feel small and unimportant, or do you inspire them to achieve more? Your actions towards others will tell them how you feel or think about them. The German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once stated, "Treat a man as he appears to be and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he already were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be."

First Impression Expectations

Have you ever noticed how the people you assume are going to be jerks turn out to be just that? And if there is someone you're especially excited to meet, then you meet her and she seems great! Often our assumptions and expectations about someone we're about to meet for the first time play out exactly as we've already mentally conceived them. Once again, even when first meeting someone, you will send subconscious messages about how they are to respond and behave.

In a particular study, a group of high school students were brought together to hear a speech on how the minimum driving age should be raised. Half the students were told to focus on the speaker's speaking style, while the others were forewarned that the speaker considered teenagers to be horrible drivers. Two weeks after the presentation, the students were asked to fill out a questionnaire. Overall, the first group rated the speaker favorably and even leaned in favor of the position he asserted. The second group rated the speaker as hostile and seemed to have tuned out his message altogether. Because of the expectations set up for them, the second group of students were already defensive before the speech even started, leaving little room for persuasion.

Embedded Commands

An embedded command is a technique used to communicate to the conscious mind while also sending a message to the subconscious mind. The idea is to actually bypass the conscious mind and communicate directly to the subconscious mind. Embedded commands are commonly used in marketing and advertising. Embedded commands are hidden suggestions within written or spoken language. The conscious mind is unaware of their existence. Embedded commands create expectations without creating inner resistance. For example, Pepsi used to have the slogan "Have a Pepsi Day." The embedded command was "Have a Pepsi."

The most effective embedded commands are short and concise; they should be no longer than two to four words. It is much easier to use these commands in persuasive writing because you can visually highlight the command. When using this technique, first determine what exactly you are trying to say to your audience. Then, create the sentences where the embedded words and phrase will logically and contextually fit. Finally, set the embedded commands apart in some visual way: italicize, bold, underline, highlight, or use a different color.

Embedded commands are also a powerful tool in speaking. Certain phrases have specific command forms that follow the "two to four words" rule. Phrases can include word associations, cause and effect statements, presuppositions, questions, hidden suggestions, or analogies. Essentially, we are looking for phrases that jump out at us. Consider the following examples:

Become wealthyBuy nowUse this material
How good it feels  Going to happenRead each word
Feel goodFollow my leadAct now
Change your lifeBecome really interested  You will understand
Use this processLearn quicklyEnjoy life
Use this skillLearn howImprove your results  

Studies show that embedded commands can actually change our attitudes or beliefs, even if we are totally unaware that this has happened.[10] It is in this way that the embedded commands are effective: The conscious mind has no opportunity to analyze or evaluate the material. We then can create expectations of behavioral changes with embedded commands as well as with and direct and indirect suggestions. The subconscious mind will create an internal reality to match the commands.[11]

[10]Milton Erickson, Ernest Rossi, and Sheila Rossi, Hypnotic Realities (New York: Irvington Publishers).

[11]Milton Erickson and Ernest Rossi, Hypnotherapy: An Exploratory Casebook (New York: Irvington Publishers).

Goal Setting: Creating Personal Expectations

Many people don't like the idea of goal setting; in fact, just the mere mention of the words makes them cringe. However, there is no doubt that goal setting works. The problem is that most people aren't doing it the right way. I am not going to spend time talking about the many aspects of goal setting — the bottom line is that goal setting works and is an important aspect of the Rule of Expectations. If you can help others make goals, it increases their future expectations for themselves. Visualizing themselves reaching their goals also makes achievement of those goals more tangible.

Goals must have the power to stretch and inspire, and they must be realistic in the mind of the person being persuaded. Research shows that goals dictate future performance. Conscious goals influence our overall performance. In one study, there was a large difference in the performance between asking someone to do their best and helping them set their goals or standard for their performance.[12]

It is a general rule of thumb that greater or more difficult goals actually increase performance. The reason for this is that lofty goals set a higher expectation, and, as discussed already, expectations strongly influence behavior. In a production plant, workers with little experience were divided into two groups. One group was told to simply observe the experienced workers and try to be able to perform at a skilled level themselves within twelve weeks. The second group received specific weekly goals that were progressively more and more demanding. Needless to say, the second group fared much better.[13]

[12]C. A. Mace, Incentives: Some Experimental Studies (London: Industrial Health Research Board, Report No. 72, 1935).

[13]Mortimer R. Feinberg, Effective Psychology for Managers (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall).


Your environment and the expectations of that environment should be persuasive. In a theory they call the Broken Window Theory, criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling suggest that a building full of broken windows will cause people to assume that no one cares for the building or its appearance. This in turn will spur more vandalism. In other words, the environment's condition gives suggestions that lead people to hold certain assumptions, and people then act on those assumptions. The broken window invites greater vandalism and crime.[14]

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell uses an example of the Broken Window Theory as he explains the New York City subway clean-up. The subway system was in dire need of rebuilding — a multibillion-dollar endeavor. With the system about to collapse, the focus was understandably on issues like reducing crime and improving subway reliability. As a consultant hired by the New York Transit Authority, George Kelling urged officials to utilize his Broken Window Theory. Hired to clean up the subways, David Gunn immediately assigned people to start cleaning up all the graffiti. Removing the graffiti seemed to be of such little consequence compared to everything else there was to worry about, but Gunn was insistent. In his own words:

The graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system. When you looked at the process of rebuilding the organization and morale, you had to win the battle against graffiti. Without winning that battle, all the management reforms and physical changes just weren't going to happen. We were about to put out new trains that were worth about ten million bucks apiece, and unless we did something to protect them, we knew just what would happen. They would last one day and then they would be vandalized.[15]

Gunn set up specific goals, timetables, and even cleaning stations. If any train came back with graffiti, it had to be cleaned immediately before it could go out again. For the vandals who had spent their nights, toiling into the wee morning hours painting their murals, it sent a strong message. Seeing their masterpieces already painted over again by the cracking of the next morning's light told them they were wasting their time. The entire anti-graffiti campaign took years, but finally, the incidence of graffiti subsided.

The hope and expectations you can create in your persuasive environment will forecast your ability to persuade. One experiment was conducted on the influence of light. Lab rats were placed in jars of water to see how long they would keep trying to swim before giving up. Some of the jars were placed in complete darkness, while others had light shining into them. The results were dramatic! The rats in the dark swam for about three minutes before succumbing. The rats with the light swam up to thirty-six hours — more than 700 times longer than the rats in the dark![16]

In another study, volunteers were asked to participate in an experiment on prison environments. Half of the volunteers posed as prison workers, while the other half posed as prison inmates. The results were astounding. Previously tested to be psychologically sound people, the participants rapidly became more and more hostile, crude, rebellious, and abusive — both those acting as inmates and as guards! One "prisoner" became so hysterical and emotionally distressed that he had to be released. The study was supposed to last two weeks but was called off after only six days![17]

[14]George Kelling and Catherine Coles, Fixing Broken Windows (New York: Touchstone).

[15]Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little Brown), p. 142.

[16]Maxwell and Dornan, Becoming a Person of Influence, pp. 71–72.

[17]P. Zimbardo, C. Banks, and C. Haney, "Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison," International Journal of Criminology and Penology (1973): 73.

Pacing and Leading

Another application of the Rule of Expectations is the concept of pacing and leading. This is part of NLP, or "neurolinguistic programming." Pacing involves establishing rapport and making persuasive communication easier; leading involves steering your prospect toward your point of view. Pacing and leading will enable you to direct a person's thoughts so they tend to move in your direction.

When you pace, you validate your prospects either verbally or nonverbally; that is, you are in agreement or rapport with your prospects. As a result, they feel comfortable and congruent with you. Pacing entails using statements everyone accepts as true. By doing so, you eliminate disagreement and get others to agree with what you are saying. The topic either can be proven true or is commonly accepted as true.

An example of a pacing question (obviously true):

Most people would love to be financially free and end their money worries forever.

Once you have established rapport and harmony with your prospect, you can create expectation of agreement. You must have general agreement before you can lead your prospect to your point of view. You then begin to use statements that you want your prospect to agree with, even though they haven't consciously and/or publicly acknowledged that they do.

An example of a leading question (you want your prospect to accept):

The answer to your financial problem is providing the right training at the right time by the right person.

So to put pacing and leading in a nutshell, pacing statements are obviously true, so the prospect has to accept their validity. Leading statements can't necessarily be proven true, but they represent what you want your prospect to believe.

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