Clever Hans


Kluge Hans (better known as “Clever Hans”) was a most amazing horse!  He had the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide by tapping out the answers with his hoof.  He could tell time and name people.  He could spell and solve problems involving musical harmony.

His owner, German mathematician Von Osten, began showing him to the public in 1891, and for years, Clever Hans amazed even the stoutest critics.  The horse could perform his tricks for randomly selected people with or without his master present.  It seemed impossible, but no one could deny the horse’s accuracy.

It wasn’t until 1904 when researcher Oskar Pfungst finally figured out how Clever Hans did it.  By testing the horse with a variety of constraints, he learned that Clever Hans was not so clever if he couldn’t see his questioner.  Also, if the questioner did not know the answer to a question, neither did the horse.

Following a hunch, Pfungst started observing the questioners more than the horse.  Soon, he discovered that Clever Hans was responding to subtle non-verbal cues from the people asking the questions.  They tended to tense their muscles until Clever Hans tapped out the correct answer with his hoof.  When he did, the questioner relaxed, signaling to the horse that it had reached the correct answer.  The horse could detect slight movements of a person’s eyebrows or a change in head position or an approving facial expression.  Clever Hans could even pick out a slight dilation of the questioner’s nostrils.

In the end, Clever Hans was most clever when people expected and wanted him to be clever.  Their anticipation of his correct answer provided him all the non-verbal feedback he needed to reassure their trust in his abilities.

Think about the implications for our human relationships.  If a horse is perceptive enough to read our non-verbals with such accuracy – even non-verbals that we are oblivious to sending – isn’t it possible that other people can pick up on them, too (if not consciously, then subconsciously)?  If you have high expectations for someone, it gets communicated in more than your praise.  If you have low expectations of someone, it leaks into every interaction you have with that person.  What you think about a person often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in your relationship.

When you have negative expectations about someone, you can try to fake your feelings when you are around them, but most people will see through your plastic efforts.  The only real way to make sure that you don’t communicate negative expectations is to change how you feel about that person.  In order to do that, you are going to have to change the story that you tell yourself about them.  You need a positive story to replace the negative one.  This is much easier said than done, but here are some suggestions:

  • Assume positive motive. Maybe the person is the way he is or acts the way he does, because there is a good reason for it.  Maybe he means well and is doing the best he knows how to do.
  • Consider that there may be extenuating circumstances. There may be factors outside of her control – things like the way the person was raised, the limitations on what they know or are able to do, the situation that they are currently in or other people and their behavior toward her.
  • Examine your own accountability. Is there anything that you are doing that is making your interactions with this person worse?
  • Get more information. Don’t make up your mind about someone or about the way someone behaves without first making sure that you have enough information to make an opinion.  Legion are the embarrassing stories where someone reacted to a small amount of information and later learned that they were missing the most important parts of the story.
  • Lower your expectations. If the person can’t or just won’t change, lower your expectations of him.  You will be happier, because he won’t let you down all the time.
  • Tell a bigger story. Maybe your story is too small.  For example, you are distracted by your teenager’s sloppy appearance and can’t help but comment on it each time you see her.  But how important is how neat she looks compared to the health of your relationship with her?  Maybe you could tell a story that says the health of your relationship is bigger and more important than your irritation over her appearance, and you are going to overlook her clothing choices in order to preserve open doors of communication with her.
  • Pray for the person. Nothing is more effective at changing your heart toward another person than prayer.  Even if you struggle to be sincere with your prayers, make a commitment to pray for him or her until God gives you His heart for that person.

Change what you think (your story) about those around you, and you will change the relationship.  You might even find that your negative story has been the whole reason for the problems between you.  Change your story; change your world.

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Filed under acceptance, communication, expectations, Interpersonal, leadership, management, parenting, Pygmalion Effect, Relationships

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