When my mom was in her 20’s, and had only been in the US for a short while, she stumbled into an opportunity to teach Japanese at a prestigious university. Though being a native speaker gave her some credibility, she was young, inexperienced, and understandably nervous before undertaking this unexpected challenge.

To deal with her pre-first-class jitters, doubts, and uncertainty, my mom would visualize her classroom filled with students who already accepted, liked, and respected her. In essence, she would imagine that she had her students’ approval and gratitude in advance, so that she could go into the first class and focus on teaching, as opposed to proving herself or earning their respect.

As a kid, this struck me as being a little self-deceptive, and I didn’t see how this could possibly work.

But looking back…could it be that my mom was onto something?

Self-fulfilling prophecies

Though visualization can sometimes seem like a mysterious phenomenon, it’s actually a more concrete process than you might think. In many cases, imagery’s effectiveness isn’t a result of the pictures in your head per se, but the effect the images have on your behavior. For instance, researchers have known for some time that there is a self-fulfilling aspect to whether we are accepted (or rejected) by others in social situations.

A classic scenario, for instance, would be where you notice a cute cellist in orchestra at summer festival. And find yourself totally wanting to get to know them, but also wanting to avoid any awkwardness. So rather than making eye contact, saying hi, and starting up a conversation when you see them on the bus, you pretend not to notice them and keep your eyes glued to your phone all the way to rehearsal. And in doing so, create evidence confirming your belief that the cellist doesn’t find you interesting. Even though, as you learn later in summer, it turns out that the cellist actually did have an interest in you – until they got the impression that you were too unapproachable and aloof.

The key role of self-protective behaviors

So it seems like my mom’s visualization strategy relates to this research on the “self-fulfilling prophecy of anticipated acceptance.” Where our assumptions about whether or not we’ll be accepted by an individual or group determines whether or not we’ll engage in self-protective behavior (like hiding our true feelings, or being more impersonal), which in turn influences the degree to which we will actually be accepted by others.

So if the self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t happen by magic, what is the specific behavior that leads to getting a group or individual’s stamp of approval?

The acceptance prophecy

A team of Canadian researchers recruited 71 university students to participate in a study about this particular self-fulfilling prophecy, known as the “acceptance prophecy.”

The participants were told that they were searching for a replacement member for a 5-member focus group team that met monthly to review new products, and that they’d be filming a structured interview to show to the team, which would provide feedback about whether the participant would be a good fit for the team or not.

Anticipated acceptance

To get a sense of how optimistic participants felt about their chances of being approved by the group (their anticipated acceptance score), they were asked a series of questions, like:

  • “How likely do you think it is that you will get along with the other group members?”
  • “How much will the group as a whole like you after the first meeting?”

An interview

Then, they were filmed in a structured interview to be shown to the focus group, and asked questions like:

  • “What personal qualities are important to how you see yourself?”

Actual acceptance

The focus group was all a ruse, of course, but a team of 5 undergraduate research assistants did watch the filmed interviews to provide researchers with a sense of whether participants were likely to be accepted by others or not. The observers answered questions like “How likely would you be to want this person in your study group?” Or “After a few weeks of knowing each other, how likely would you be to invite this person to hang out with a group of your friends?” And these responses were merged to create the participants’ actual acceptance score.

The researchers measured a range of other variables too, like a) participants’ mood, b) how assertive or confident they seemed, c) how sociable the participants appeared, as well as d) their “interpersonal warmth.”

The key link

As expected, the more optimistic participants were about being accepted by the group, the more likely they were to get higher acceptance ratings from the observers.

And it wasn’t confidence, assertiveness, mood, or sociability that best predicted high acceptance scores by the observers, but warmth that seemed to link anticipated acceptance to actual acceptance.

In other words, if participants went into the interview thinking that they were likely to be accepted, they automatically carried themselves in a manner that came across as being warmer and more agreeable, which increased the likelihood that they would in fact be accepted.

If on the other hand, they went into the interview more pessimistic about their chances of being accepted, they tended to come across as being colder or more indifferent, which in turn negatively impacted the observers’ response to them and reduced their acceptance scores.

What does “warmth” mean?

Umm…so what does “interpersonal warmth” mean exactly? I know, it’s one of those concepts that’s easy to identify when we experience it, but a little trickier to define in words. In a nutshell, warmth involves behaviors like smiling, self-disclosure, and a “prosocial” attitude that communicates a sincere desire to build positive relationships.

Which is still a little vague, but regardless, rather than trying to “hack” interpersonal warmth by deconstructing it and trying to perfect those specific behaviors, it’s probably best to approach the situation with the right mindset, and let interpersonal warmth just happen more organically anyhow.

Takeaways

Whether we’re giving a master class, conducting a workshop at a conference, starting a trial, playing with an orchestra as a guest, or reading with a quartet or collaborative partner, putting ourselves in a situation where our peers will clearly be judging or evaluating us, can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience indeed.

So as the research in this area suggests, perhaps our best bet is to spend a bit of time in advance, preparing ourselves to go into any situation as if we’ve already “passed.” To imagine that we are already well-liked by those we’ll be teaching or playing with. Even if they don’t know it yet. Or, based on their facial expressions, don’t seem to have gotten the memo

Otherwise, we risk going into a situation determined to prove ourselves, and come across as defensive, stubborn, and snobbish. Or in an effort to avoid showing our cards and letting on how excited we are, end up seeming withdrawn, cold, aloof, and standoffish. And ironically, end up getting exactly the result that we were afraid of in the first place.