Great expectations


Someone surprised me this week. No, I don’t mean the kind of surprise that comes wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon and a sweet scent.

I don’t mean the kind of surprise that comes in an “assorted” box with a promise of excess calories either. Mind you, given that Valentine’s Day is around the corner, this type of surprise might still be in store for me!

The surprise I received was not a gift in the regular way. It was simply that someone exceeded my expectations by doing what they said they would do, and in fact going a mile further than they said they would go. It hardly seems anything to write home about, let alone devoting a whole 800-word column to, but so often life delivers less than you hoped for, that when the opposite happens, it starts to seem quite remarkable.

The odd thing is that our expectations so heavily affect the outcome of our interactions, that it may well be worth considering the issue of expectation more deeply. I suppose the reason we always find it so remarkable when someone exceeds expectation is that generally whatever we expect is what we get.

The words of Edwin Louis Cole, the father of the Christian men’s movement “Expectancy is the atmosphere of miracles”, continue to be quoted decades after his death. Many modern Christian teachers encourage congregants to expect miracles, signs and wonders as a demonstration of their faith. They understand that on a supernatural level, it is the expectation of something happening, which in fact causes it to be. But does this also apply on a practical level?

In 1968 Robert Rosenthaland Lenore Jacobson conducted a study on how teacher expectations affected the outcome of student learning. The study involved teachers being told (falsely) that a randomly selected group of students was in fact a special group on the verge of rapid intellectual growth.

Their conclusion was that: At the end of the experiment, many of the students who had been earmarked, particularly those in grade one and two, exhibited exceptional IQ test scores, far superior to those of other children of similar ability who had not been singled out. The researchers concluded that it was the expectations of the teachers, and the way the teachers subsequently behaved towards the students they expected more of, which caused a real change in the intellectual growth of a greater extent than would have occurred without the teacher’s conscious or subconscious intervention.

They called it the Pygmalion effect after George Bernard Shaw’s play in which the character of Eliza Doolittle explains that a person’s place in society is based on how he or she is treated by others:

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.

“I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

I suppose every girl needs a Professor Higgins character to bring out the lady in her. And presumably the expectation of being treated accordingly will cause that to be.

Many years ago I had a friend from Burkina Faso who worked in the health profession and told me of situations where a women would continuously suffer miscarriages or stillbirths. The traditional belief was that it was the same child returning over and over again and so they would mark the body of the child in a very specific way, like for instance, by cutting off a small piece of the ear.

He said in many instances subsequent stillbirths would be born with the same mark already on them, giving credence to the traditional belief. Now it could be that I misunderstood my friend, who had a heavy Burkinabe accent, or perhaps he misrepresented himself somewhat. What I know for sure is that the effect of this story on my own faith was very positive. I walked away believing that faith in something could really cause it to be.

So when we expect greatly, we increase our chances of attaining greatly. If it doesn’t happen, then we have to face disappointment and deal with its consequences, but the whole point of expectancy is that mostly it results in self-fulfilment.

Let’s experiment with this concept for Valentine’s Day, shall we? Let’s expect something wonderful to happen and see what transpires. If it works, then surely we can apply this concept to our families, our businesses, and even our country?

lThembe Khumalo writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to


  1. A good article but at the wrong time. Mood yevanhu wants to see action aginst looters thats when we can satrt talking exceeded expectations. For now nothing meets my expectations until vanhu vabatwa.

    Read the mood yevanhu madam.

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