Look for the Best in People and You'll Find It
By Joel F. Wade - November 24, 2011

Editor's Note: We thought this was an appropriate submission from Dr. Wade to run on America's Thanksgiving Day …

Look for the best in people and you'll find it; look for the worst and you'll find that, too.

How we view others can generate a self-fulfilling prophecy: you believe that they will behave in a certain way, or that you'll be affected by them in a certain way, and, lo and behold, it happens! But it may have happened in part by your own expectations and actions.

Robert Merton first introduced the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy in an essay for the Antioch Review in 1948. He described it as a three-stage process:

* The belief that a certain event will happen

* This leads to new behavior that that person would not have otherwise undertaken

* The actual events take place, and the prophecy is fulfilled

People respond to the way they are treated. It generally feels good to be liked, admired and respected. In contrast, it generally feels bad to be disliked, judged harshly as a person and disrespected.

When you approach somebody with positive expectations they will often (not always) tend to move somewhat in that direction. When you approach that same person with negative expectations they will often (not always) tend to move somewhat in that direction.

This phenomenon was studied several decades ago by Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson and reported in their book, The Pygmalion Effect.

In the study, they told elementary school teachers that certain students showed high aptitude on an intelligence test (which was bogus, the students were chosen at random). Over the next year, those students from whom the teachers expected impressive work did indeed do better than their peers.

The important idea from this, of course, is that people can be affected by the expectations of others. The down side of this study and its conclusions is that it also opened the door for lots of victimhood studies, such as: Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work (Anyon, 1980) and Failing at Fairness: How Americas Schools Cheat Girls (Sadker and Sadker, 1995).

Still, the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies does exist, and you can probably think of times when you were inspired or discouraged by somebody who was important to you, depending on what they saw – or didn't see – in you.

You can also probably think of times when you watched other people heading for trouble that didn't need to happen – as they played out behavior according to what they thought would happen, thereby putting actions in place that would bring on their worst fears.

This can happen in any relationship, but it can be particularly impactful within romantic relationships, for better or worse.

The title The Pygmalion Effect is drawn from the original story of Pygmalion, found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. He is the sculptor on the island of Cyprus who crafts the most beautiful likeness of a woman, with which he then proceeds to fall in love. He prays to Venus that his ideal of a woman could be a real woman. She fulfills that prayer, bringing his creation to life, fulfilling his deepest wish.

We often see what we want to see in people, believing that it is the clear truth. But more often than not what we are seeing is a complicated combination of the truth, our own beliefs and expectations, a good dose of imagination and interpretation and the effect that all of this has on our relationship with the other person.

Pygmalion saw what he wished to see in his creation and we hear nothing of what she was actually like as a living breathing person. All we know is that this was his ideal. His love for her was an idealized love. He didn't know her – he couldn't know her. She was purely a creation of what he wanted to see manifest in the world.

Some people view romantic love as an example of such idealization – seeing just what you want to see in your mate and remaining purposefully ignorant of any shortcomings.

Cynics will point to this as an example of phoniness, an extension of the initial excitement of a new love. They will purposefully avoid such indulgence and shun any kind of glorification of other people – including the ones they love – for fear that they might be mistaken.

But there is actually research showing that "Unrealistic Idealization Prevents the Decline of Marital Satisfaction." Those newly-married couples who continue to actively look for the best in each other do not lose the initial love and satisfaction of their marriage. Those who don't actively look for the best in each other suffer a significant decline over the first three years.

Now, see if you can find the cynical premise in the title of that study.

It jumps right out at me: "Unrealistic Idealization." You have a choice when dealing with anybody. You can look for the best within them, you can look for the worst within them, or you can have some other guiding principle. For the cynic, that guiding principle is a search for the Deeper Truth of who that person is.

The problem with such a devotion to a Deeper Truth is that we are complicated critters. We tend to see ourselves as better people than we are and we tend to see other people inaccurately. When people remember events of their childhood, they don't remember those things very well and are strongly susceptible to influences regarding what they think happened.

We also tend to think of ourselves as the same person over time, when really your experience of yourself changes over the course of your life.

So the Deeper Truth that the cynics search for is more elusive than they would like to think. A person can more accurately be seen as a range of possibilities. For some that range is in the "pretty remarkable" zone, for others it falls in the "hideous sort of person" zone, and there is lots of variation in between.

What holds each of us together is a sense of self, a vision of who we are and who we could be. We like a sense of order within our own minds, and we are happiest when we spend time in activities that absorb us, challenge us and make our sense of self more complex and cohesive.

In a relationship, it feels really good when somebody we care about sees the best within us, the striving for integrity and a positive, cohesive sense of self. It feels really good to have the more heroic and noble elements of who we are recognized and appreciated. It feels really good to be loved for who we are, and for the strivings that we show towards becoming our best self.

The cynic calls this "Unrealistic Idealization."

I call it "Looking for the Best" within someone. It is one of the most important elements of love.

This isn't about denying some horrible behavior like violence, abuse, or criminality. A person can want to be seen as a hero but if he or she behaves like a villain, then he or she is a villain.

But within the normal range of human behavior we each have opportunities to behave well or poorly. We each fall short of our best aspirations at times and triumph at others. To paraphrase my late grandmother, "You do not have to be perfect in order to be perfectly wonderful."

When another person sees only what's wrong with you, and you see only what's wrong with them, neither of you are seeing "The Truth." You are each seeing your worst expectations, and you are making it more likely that you will influence that other person – and they you – to fulfill those expectations.

When another person sees the best within you, and you see the best within them, you and they are also not seeing "The Truth," strictly speaking; but you are encouraging each other to bring out the best in each other, and you make it more likely that it will happen, that it will become the truth.

What you are growing and nurturing in doing so is love.

And what you are building over time, through consistently doing so, is trusting, lasting and deeply satisfying love. That is not unrealistic idealization, it is what makes life together with another person among the most joyful and gratifying qualities of a good and happy life.

Look for the best in people and you will find it.

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