Attitudes and Performance
The Impact of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
By Brian Fitch, Ph.D.
In recent years, the demands on law enforcement have become increasingly complex. Today, more than ever, officers must understand the law; grasp departmental policy; recognize ways to deal with a range of citizens, including difficult people and those with mental illnesses; demonstrate a mastery of tactics, such as weaponless defense, less lethal munitions, and firearms; and maintain the highest levels of physical fitness. Trainers play a critical role in the success of law enforcement’s mission by identifying areas of improvement, setting goals, developing and implementing lesson plans, and providing oversight and motivation throughout the process. Yet, despite the best efforts of instructors—not to mention the considerable monies that agencies invest in training—many students have difficulty meeting certain mandates while others fail to realize their full potential as law enforcement professionals.
Student performance is—to say the least—a complex, multifaceted phenomenon influenced by a number of factors, including the specificity and difficulty of course goals, instructional methods, facilitator experience, and learner expectations and level of dedication.
In some instances, students fail because they lack the necessary aptitude or enthusiasm to learn something new. More often than not, however, it is because they have little faith in their own abilities or, in other cases, because of the teacher’s attitude or conduct toward them. While most trainers recognize the importance of proper learning objectives and instructional methods, they often fail to realize the full impact that attitudes and beliefs—both those of the instructor and student—can have on motivation, effort, and learning.
To be successful—whether in the classroom, in the gym, or on the range—instructors need to set suitable goals, involve learners, and offer appropriate feedback. Students, on the other hand, must see value in pursuing those objectives, put forth the required effort, and believe unquestioningly in their ability to reach those goals. The author aims to familiarize law enforcement trainers with the importance of their attitudes and beliefs about students, as well as how they communicate those viewpoints—whether knowingly or unknowingly—to learners. Additionally, he discusses the role of student beliefs in determining how much effort they are willing to exert, along with how they handle setbacks, and offers suggestions for improving student performance.
According to ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion, the King of Cyrus, carved a woman out of ivory so perfect that he fell in love with her. Through his own will and the assistance of the goddess Venus, he brought the statue to life—a phenomenon known as the Pygmalion effect.
In simplest terms, the Pygmalion effect represents a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—a foretelling of a student’s potential and performance brought about by a teacher’s expectations. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that, on average, educators’ assumptions do influence the actions and achievements of their pupils. If teachers anticipate that students will succeed, they usually do. On the other hand, when they expect learners to perform poorly, they often are not disappointed. In either case, pupils rise to the level of teacher expectations—either positive or negative.1 Generally speaking, trainers who anticipate more from students by setting higher standards, providing encouragement, and offering positive feedback inspire higher levels of performance than those who lack faith in the ability and motivation of their charges.
Dr. Fitch, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles, California, Sheriff’s Department, holds faculty positions in the Psychology Department at California State University, Long Beach, and with the Organizational Leadership Program at Woodbury University.
While the earliest studies began with school-age children, subsequent research has examined the role of instructor suppositions with salespeople, athletes, pilots, law enforcement officers, and military personnel.2 Nor are the results of these investigations incidental. For example, in a study involving 105 Israeli Defense Force soldiers attending a 15-week combat command course, the expectations of the instructors accounted for 73 percent of the variance in performance, 66 percent of the variance in attitudes, and 28 percent of the variance in leadership. Prior to meeting the trainees, the instructors received data on the students, including psychological test scores and ratings from their previous trainers. They also had to learn each trainee’s command potential (CP) rating. The results caused the study’s authors to conclude that “Trainees whose instructors were led to expect more did indeed learn more.”3
The Pygmalion effect can easily apply to law enforcement trainers in every corner of the profession. As most learners can testify from experience, teachers’ influence goes well beyond the material or classroom. Instructors play a critical role in shaping how students see themselves, their abilities, and their potential in virtually every area of law enforcement training—as well as whether they strive to reach that potential or decide, instead, to give up because they simply do not “have what it takes.”
During the basic police academy, trainees must perform a number of tasks, such as shooting, driving, and defensive tactics, approaching these with varying degrees of belief in their abilities due, in part, to prior knowledge. While some may have had extensive experience with firearms, high-speed driving, or weaponless defense, others have had little, if any, exposure. In such situations, students look to their instructors for guidance and reassurance. What the trainers feel and believe and how they communicate those ideas to students have tremendous power and, like most power, can be constructive or destructive depending on how it is used.4
Trainees learning the basics of operating a handgun for the first time undoubtedly will experience a degree of uncertainty. But, by demonstrating a positive attitude toward their abilities, providing positive feedback, and setting high goals, the instructor likely can enhance their confidence, thereby motivating them to continue exerting maximum effort. On the other hand, if the trainer shows little interest in the students, communicating instead a lack of faith in their abilities, they may stop putting forth the effort necessary to improve, effectively short-circuiting the learning process.
The way educators communicate their beliefs and attitudes can influence how students think about themselves, their potential, and their abilities. Instructors treat learners—whether knowingly or unknowingly—differently according to preconceived beliefs about what these individuals are—or are not—capable of accomplishing. In each of the studies the author reviewed, teacher expectations had a pronounced effect on student achievement. When teachers believed that students were smart, they treated them as if they were; the students must have thought they were smart, and—not surprisingly—they acted as though they were. In contrast, when teachers felt that students did not have the necessary skills, aptitudes, or intelligence to perform well, they treated them accordingly. The students apparently believed they did not “have what it takes” and behaved in ways consistent with those expectations.
While the importance of instructor expectations seems straightforward enough, the ways educators communicate their beliefs can prove more subtle. Studies in communication and psychology have suggested that people rely on three channels to convey their emotions.
- Verbal (words and phrases)
- Paralanguage (tone, pitch, and volume)
- Nonverbal (facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures, posture, and distance)
What is surprising, however, is the relatively minor role played by the spoken word in communicating emotion. In fact, communication studies have indicated that the majority of emotions, including how instructors truly feel about a student’s performance and potential, are communicated nonverbally. More specifically, fully 55 percent of the emotional impact of a communicator’s message is nonverbal, with 38 percent accounted for by paralanguage and only 7 percent explained by spoken words.5
The apparent power of nonverbal communication reinforces the importance of sending consistent messages. When instructors say one thing but broadcast a different message nonverbally, they invariably undermine the credibility of their communication. For example, law enforcement firearms trainers can significantly undermine their effectiveness by telling students that anyone can shoot well while, at the same time, displaying subtle cues of frustration, such as exhaling deeply, looking disgusted, or speaking in a patronizing voice to recruits having trouble attaining a qualifying score.
Students, however, are surprisingly adept at picking up nonverbal cues, such as subtle changes in facial expression, eye contact, posture, or tone of voice.6 If instructors send mixed messages, learners invariably will pay greater attention to the nonverbal one, especially if it is negative. Thus, when praising students, trainers must communicate the same message both verbally and nonverbally to be believed.
Subjective beliefs about personal ability—commonly referred to as self-efficacy—can influence the amount of effort a learner commits to a goal. Research on self-efficacy has suggested that students’ motivation to strive for particular goals is closely linked to what they believe about their abilities to reach them.7 Or, put another way, students do not normally set goals unless they believe they can achieve them. Their self-efficacy not only influences the type and difficulty of the goals they select but also helps determine the amount of effort they will expend.
Because students with high levels of self-efficacy have confidence in their abilities to meet their goals, they tend to set higher expectations and demonstrate greater effort than pupils with lower levels of selfefficacy. In contrast, learners less convinced of their abilities to produce an outcome or meet a goal—those with lower levels of self-efficacy—set lower objectives and exert reduced effort.8 And, as should be clear by now, the way trainers communicate and interact with learners impacts their self-efficacy. Greater instructor expectations translate to higher levels of self-efficacy that can result in more effort and superior levels of performance.
Self-efficacy not only affects the amount of effort learners will exert to master a particular task but also the way they deal with the inevitable setbacks that come with learning something new. Most students experience some level of frustration, and the way they handle those delays can mean the difference between success and failure. People vary in their self-efficacy expectations from strong to weak. Learners with a solid sense of self-efficacy believe they can master difficulties through hard work and diligence, making them more likely to succeed than others who feel that they have little control over an outcome.
“...the Pygmalion effect represents a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—a foretelling of a student’s potential and performance brought about by a teacher’s expectations.”
Locus of Control
Even in situations where students demonstrate high levels of self-efficacy, their motivation to pursue a goal often depends heavily on the perceived relationship between effort and outcome—a concept known as locus of control.9 People with an internal locus of control believe they have power over their own destiny. They tend to feel that their lives are shaped by their own skills, abilities, and efforts. In contrast, individuals with an external locus of control often think that their lives are determined mostly by sources outside themselves—in other words, chance or luck.
Students with a strong internal locus of control tend to react differently to setbacks than those with an external sense of control. For example, when students with an internal locus of control do poorly on a test, they likely attribute this dismal achievement to a lack of preparation or failure to read the questions properly. Such learners likely believe that with more attention to these areas, they can improve their performance on subsequent examinations. On the other hand, students with a strong external locus of control generally attribute their lackluster performance to bad luck or difficult material, often surrendering to the belief that they do not “have what it takes.”
Few learners are likely to pursue an objective—regardless of how attractive or important the outcome—if they believe their efforts will have little effect.10 In other words, students are not going to waste their time and energy pursuing aims over which they have little perceived control. On the other hand, if learners believe that their efforts will have a direct impact on an important performance objective, they likely will pursue it with all of the effort necessary to achieve the goal.
In basic police training, recruits, especially those with little previous exposure, can become easily frustrated when faced with the many unfamiliar skills they must learn. This is especially true of students with a strong external locus of control who simply surrender to the idea that the ability to perform any number of law enforcement functions, such as high-speed driving, defensive tactics, and report writing, is innate and, therefore, not subject to change. Thus, law enforcement trainers should stress the importance of effort as opposed to talent. For instance, they should encourage trainees having trouble qualifying with a handgun to practice repeatedly and continue until their skills improve. Students should realize that no limit exists for the amount of time and effort they can spend practicing. And, more often than not, that improvement directly reflects the amount of time and effort spent practicing. By emphasizing hard work and celebrating successes, instructors can help improve the selfefficacy, confidence, and performance of their students.
Closely related to locus of control, mind-set is the theory that some students reach their potential and others do not because of different personal beliefs about ability and intelligence. The key, it seems, is not ability, but, rather, how students look at ability. Do learners see ability as fixed (something that cannot be changed or improved), or do they view it as something that can be developed? Students with a fixed mind-set believe that certain attributes (e.g., talent, intelligence, or athletic ability) cannot be changed; people are simply born with their full potential in place.11 What is the point of working hard unless that effort will pay off? Because a challenge is, by definition, hard work, learners with a fixed mind-set often avoid adversity in favor of what they know, effectively limiting their potential and perpetuating their negative self-image.
In contrast, learners with a growth mind-set believe that they can develop and improve skills through hard work and training. As a result, students with a growth mind-set tend to embrace new challenges and set higher goals.12 Moreover, rather than being discouraged by failure, such students generally look at setbacks as opportunities to develop and, in many cases, as predictable aspects of the learning process. This desire to improve creates a positive feedback loop that encourages further learning and improvement, which promotes yet more desire to learn.
The view students take of their abilities can profoundly affect their success and personal growth in any number of training venues, as well as other important areas of life. Fortunately, learners can change from a fixed to a growth mindset. Regardless of the topic, law enforcement instructors should pay special attention to the attitudes of their students. Whether conducting a course on interviewing, crime scene investigation, or basic firearms, trainers should emphasize how improvement in all areas of law enforcement is the result of appropriate goal setting, hard work, and learning from failure.
Instructors can help learners better realize their potential by emphasizing a growth mind-set—more specifically, the idea that intelligence and performance are malleable and that both can be improved with enough hard work and practice. They can enhance students’ self-confidence, desire to learn, and resilience. When doing so, however, instructors need to work with students to set appropriate goals. Studies have suggested that early success and familiarity are important parts of building learners’ confidence and, in turn, their ability to overcome obstacles.13
While traditional instructor development classes have focused on clear course objectives, cohesive lesson plans, and active learning, they often have not adequately emphasized the important relationship between beliefs and attitudes—both of the trainer and student—in motivation, effort, and learning. Empirical studies, however, seem to support a link between instructor attitudes and beliefs about learners and student performance. Teachers who believe in their students expect higher levels of performance and set more challenging goals, which enhance learners’ beliefs in their abilities—an attitude that, in turn, generates greater effort and higher levels of achievement.
Similarly, strong evidence has suggested that the ways students think about their abilities and potential—specifically self-efficacy and mind-set—can have a compelling effect on motivation, effort, and performance. Students with a strong sense of self-efficacy and a growth mind-set—in other words, learners who believe strongly in their abilities to accomplish goals through hard work and practice—tend to outperform students with lower levels of self-efficacy and a fixed mind-set. Fortunately, neither self-efficacy nor mindset is fixed. By setting suitable goals, encouraging early successes, and providing positive, timely feedback, instructors can help students improve their self-efficacy and mindset and, by doing so, ultimately enhance their self-confidence, ability to handle setbacks, and performance.
Dr. Fitch can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“...mind-set is the theory that some students reach their potential and others do not because of different personal beliefs about ability and intelligence.”