Let's face it, all of us have opinions about other people. Some are strong, some are fleeting, and while many are our own, a great many more are "borrowed" from those around us.
Driven. Smart. Unreliable. Generous. Good at sport. Greedy. Kind. Lazy. Funny. Annoying... These labels are attached to the people around us and while we're at it we also pin quite a few on ourselves.
But where do these opinions come from and what effect do they have?
Research shows that the impact of our (and other people's) opinions is quite significant. The reason is that beliefs affect our actions, which in turn reinforce those beliefs. In the 1960's a couple of researchers decided to look into the topic and came up with a theory called The Pygmalion Effect (otherwise known as the Rosenthal effect). What they discovered is that opinions are critical because people have a tendency to rise or fall to meet expectations.
Let's take an example. Liliana is starting year three and her teacher believes she is terrible at maths (something she heard from the year 2 teacher). As a result when it's time for mathematics she deals with Lilly in line with her beliefs. She gives her easier maths problems, offers other kids opportunities to answer questions, and praises them for their maths ability. As a result, Liliana starts to believe that she really is no good at maths and is very likely to start doing worse – not only as a result of the actions of the teacher but also because of her reduced belief in herself. And because she starts to perform badly this only reinforces the teacher's view that she really is terrible at maths… and so the cycle continues.
The reverse is also true of course. Let’s say I take on a team and am told by Kate's previous manager that she is a high performer. This information will inevitably influence my beliefs about her along with my actions. When a key piece of work comes up I'm more likely to give it to her, I will look for things to support my belief that she is good and point out successes to her and others. Her performance review will be better and in turn she will start to see herself as a high achiever. And of course when she believes she is a high achiever she will behave in a way that supports this view which in turn will cement my viewpoint.
The above may seem simplistic, but the bottom line is that our opinions aren't harmless little thoughts, they influence our behaviour and in turn they impact the way other people feel about themselves. And yet beliefs aren't always born from fact. Quite often they are founded on other people's views, on partial information, are exaggerated or are simply down right wrong. Yet the knock-on effect can be profound.
The same goes with our beliefs about ourselves. Not only do they impact our actions, they also influence other people’s views and treatment of us. If I think I’m terrible at public speaking and refuse to stand up and talk in front of other people, those around me will take on this belief and when it comes time to do a presentation I'm less likely to be involved. As result I'm left languishing in the audience, have less chance of overcoming my fear, and will actually become worse. Thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The flip-side of all this of course is that self-belief and positive action are incredibly powerful. If you can switch your mindset and actions towards yourself and others then you can use the same cycle to yours (and their) benefit. So next time rather than doubting your abilities, act with confidence. Instead of telling everyone how rubbish you are give it a shot. This will not only impact your behaviour but also influence the way other's think and act. Similarly if you notice yourself taking on people's opinions of others, why not make a commitment to instead make up your own mind - you may be surprised.