Horses for Courses

If it is true that we see what we believe, then it may also be true that we get what we expect.

As we go about our lives we imagine that unless we intend to influence things, we have no effect on what happens.  But is this true?

In 1904, William von Osten, believed he had taught his horse, Hans, to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Clever Hans’ talents weren’t limited to mathematics, he could also spell, read, solve problems of musical harmony and answer personal questions – all with taps of his hoof.

But investigation revealed that though von Osten wasn’t a fraud, his horse was not as smart as he seemed.

It turns out that Hans could only get the right answer if the asker already knew the answer. It seems that the reason Hans could answer questions was that the questioners all exhibited a number of subtle, involuntary and unconscious signals that the horse could ‘read’.  Neither consciousness of the possibility of giving these signals nor attempts not to give them were successful.  These are involuntary cues in the truest sense of the word.

This phenomenon became known as the Clever Hans Effect. Even today, comparative psychologists – who study animal behaviour – generally test animals in isolation to avoid this effect.

Human being are equally susceptible to the Clever Hans Effect.  Our expectations are not just vague, harmless whims but can actually influence outcomes.

So, whenever we are with others it’s worth asking ourselves if the way they act is just the way they act, or could it be, at least partially, influenced by how we expect them to act?