Sometimes we here at Mockingbird have to make some cognitive leaps to connect the stories we find to the Law/Gospel, and other times, well, it seems like things are tailor made for our project here. A recent article on Psyblog entitled, “How Other People’s Expectations Control Us,” is a perfect example of the latter; look out, it’s Christmas in December:)

“This idea” explains the article, “that other people’s expectations about us directly affect how we behave was examined in a classic social psychology study carried out by Dr Mark Snyder from the University of Minnesota and colleagues (Snyder et al., 1977). They had a hunch that people automatically sense how others view them and immediately start exhibiting the expected behaviours.”

[The researchers] had male students hold conversations with female students they’d just met through microphones and headsets. One of the quickest ways that people who’ve just met stereotype each other is by appearance. People automatically assume others who are more attractive are also more sociable, humorous, intelligent and so on. So to manipulate this, just before the conversation, along with biographical information about the person they were going to meet, the men were given a photograph. Half were shown a photograph of a woman who had been rated for attractiveness as an 8 out of 10 and half were given a photo of a woman rated as a 2 out of 10.

Then the men talked to the women but without seeing them so they didn’t know they weren’t actually talking to the woman in the picture. Half expected to be talking to the attractive woman, half to the unattractive woman. The question is, would the women pick up on this fact and unconsciously fit into the stereotype they had been randomly assigned?

[To everyone’s surprise]“When independent observers listened to the tapes of the conversation they found that when women were talking to men who thought they were very attractive, the women exhibited more of the behaviours stereotypically associated with attractive people: they talked more animatedly and seemed to be enjoying the chat more. What was happening was that the women conformed to the stereotype the men projected on them. So people really do sense how they are viewed by others and change their behaviour to match this expectation.”

Now, clearly there is a lot that can be said about this regarding the concept of imputation, and anyone who wants to can read our Mockinglossary entry here, the current debates here and here, and a famous sermon here. For our purposes, though, what is interesting is the subtle difference between the psychology of imputation and the theology of imputation. Although it it is argued that imputation in both instances is the projection onto a person an identity or ability or quality that they themselves do not possess, and although the ends may be the same—the women who were thought to be beautiful responded as such–nevertheless, a crucial distinction between the two must not be overlooked and is illustrated in the closing paragraph:

I leave you with one final thought: in the real world two people are influencing each other continuously, trying to live up (or down) to each other’s expectations. Of course we only have direct control over our own expectations of others, so one implication of this study is that by changing our expectations of others we can actually change their behaviour for worse or, should we choose, for the better.

This is patently false. As the experiment clearly showed, our expectations of others are conditioned by any number of factors and we do not, in fact, “have direct control.”

This is where the theology and psychology of imputation part ways, because one is predicated upon the presumption that we can change ourselves and choose to view people in different ways, and the other throws us back on the prayer that our hearts, not our wills, will be changed and we will be given to love others even as they are, and not as we want them to be. Psychological imputation is the forward thinking projection onto a person or situation in the hopes of, as the article says, “change(ing) their behaviour for worse or, should we choose, for the better.” Theological imputation, on the other hand, from an inter-personal perspective, is what happens when Beauty truly falls in love with the Beast who was never a Prince, and that doesn’t matter in the least (ht.PZ).