In a recent podcast of the popular National Public Radio show “This American Life,” guest hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explored how expectations can and do shape thoughts, behavior, and achievement. Focusing on the story of Daniel Kish, a man who is blind and uses echolocation as a way to “see” the world and accomplish things beyond societal and cultural expectations, Spiegel and Miller demonstrate just how powerful expectations can be.
Echolocating and Expectations
The story of “Batman,” a nickname given to Kish because of his use of echolocation — he makes clicking noises in the roof of his mouth, and based on how the sounds are referred back to him, he is able to tell where he is in space (just as bats do) — examines how people who are blind use echolocation and defy socially low expectations. By the same token, the piece examines how fear and love can create and sustain these low expectations. People with blindness like Kish can and do use echolocation to “see” and experience the world as people with sight do, through climbing trees, riding bikes, and more.
Although Kish's story is unique because of his blindness, it resonates from parenting, teaching, and training perspectives as well; it offers striking examples of how low expectations stunt the development of self, behavior, and ultimately brain function. People, regardless of impairment, eventually meet expectations, whether high or low.
Rats Respond to Expectations
It turns out that what we think about things or animals or people — private thoughts or expectations about rats, for example — can profoundly affect behavior. To illustrate this point, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller introduce Bob Rosenthal, a research psychologist. Early in his career, Rosenthal visited his lab late at night and hung signs on the rat cages. Some of the signs said that the encaged rat was incredibly smart, and some signs said that the encaged rate was incredibly dumb. In reality, they were all average rats, all purchased from the same location for research purposes.
Rosenthal then brought experimenters into his lab to run tests, and he told some that they would be working with incredibly smart rats, and others that they would be working with incredibly dumb rats. These folks accordingly formed expectations about how their rats would behave and perform on a series of maze runs. Rosenthal’s results were extraordinary: the “smart” rats outperformed the “dumb” rats nearly 2 to 1.
Rosenthal determined that expectations the experimenters carried with them subtly changed the way they interacted with the rats — specifically, the way they touched the rats — and in so doing, changed the way the rats behaved. So when experimenters believed their rats were smart, they felt “more warmly” toward the rats and touched the rats more gently. Rosenthal points to research that shows handling rats more gently can increase their performance in mazes and other tests.
Listen to the "Batman" Podcast in Full
To fully experience the power of elocution in Kish's everyday life, we encourage you to listen to "Batman" in its entirety.
People Are Influenced By Expectations, Too
If this is true for rats, might it be true for people too? Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, says that our body language conveys a lot about our expectations for others. “You may be standing farther away from someone you have low expectations for. You may not make much eye contact. We are not usually aware of how we are conveying our expectations to other people. But it’s there."
Siegel goes on to report some other harrowing examples of the relationship between expectations and performance. She says, “Research has shown that a teacher’s expectations can raise or lower a student’s IQ score...that a military trainer’s expectations can literally make a soldier faster or slower. How far does this go?”
Rising Above Expectations
So, how does Daniel Kish (“Batman”) fit into this picture? Our cultural and societal expectations of people, particularly people who have an impairment or disability, can dramatically impact what they achieve in life. Lulu Miller reports on a day she spent hiking with Kish, “He’s the one who has led me on this hike deep into the woods. We get to forks in the road, and he knows they’re there. He leads me a across a footbridge that’s maybe two and a half feet wide without slowing down.”
Kish is perhaps most well known for the fact that he can and does ride a bike. “And here’s where we get back to expectations,” Miller says. “See, Daniel thinks there is nothing amazing about him. He thinks most people who are blind who don’t have other disabilities could do things like ride bikes.” For his part, Kish says he “definitely thinks that most blind people could move around with fluidity and confidence if that were the expectation.” Our own expectations for what blind people can (and can’t) do are too low. And behavior dips to meet the bar we set.
Kish believes it is our low expectations that “psychologically become inculcated in the blind person, absorbed and translated into physical reality.” If we alter our expectations, if we raise that bar, then many more people who are without sight could do what Kish is doing day in and out — traveling the world feeling unlimited and uninhibited by blindness.
How Love Can Interfere with Growth
Ironically, it is love that can get in the way; that can, insidiously, lower expectations and achievement for those we cherish most. Manifesting itself as fear (of failure, of injury, or worse), backed by the best intentions, our deep love may be the very thing that handicaps our children.
Paulette Kish, Daniel’s mother, did not keep her son bubble wrapped when he was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma (eye cancer) and had to have his eyes removed at age three. In fact, she was decidedly — intentionally — permissive. He remained adventurous after his blindness, and despite outside pressures from family members and teachers, she did nothing to stop him. And because of this, because Daniel wasn’t suppressed by low expectations, he flourished. He felt limitless in what he could do. He took risks, he fell, he got up again. Undeterred, and ready.
As parents, doing what Paulette Kish did with Daniel is no easy thing. In fact, it feels antithetical to our most essential instinct — to keep our kids safe (from threats physical, psychological, emotional) at all costs. At any cost. We see risks in our children’s paths and and rush to clear the way. This feels good. We are helping, we think. We are easing burdens, and eradicating obstacles. But do our children really benefit from this oversight and intervention? Or are we perhaps inadvertently telling them that we don’t think they can quite handle this challenge...or that one? This is what Kish says is his, and our, biggest challenge in changing expectations — love. “[Parents] want their child to stay safe, to not suffer. And that’s very noble, but it holds the child back.”
As a kid, Daniel Kish had his fair share of crashes. He went careening down a big hill on his bicycle and crashed into a metal pole. More than once. “Running into a pole is a drag,” he says now. “But never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster.”
These days, Kish uses his echolocating skills and his fearlessness to help those who need him most. A modern day Batman, Kish founded and runs a nonprofit called World Access for the Blind to work with and teach “people with all forms of blindness” and to “increase public awareness about the strengths and capabilities of blind people.”
In one of his first outreach efforts, Kish traveled to the home of a five year-old boy with blindness. The goal was for the child to climb a tree. The child was scared and at one point got so anxious that he flailed and fell out of the tree. Kish caught him and told him sternly, “No. You can go up. You cannot go down.”
The exercise took three hours, but in the end the child climbed the tree by himself by learning to “find his own footholds and find his own handholds.” And when all is said and done, isn’t that the best thing we can hope for our children to learn?