The Rat Maze: Expectations vs. Reality

By Andrea Aldean, PhD

Two mice next to each other

How powerful is your unconscious mind? Do you think that your unconscious expectations can influence the performance of the people around you? How does this influence your expectations vs. reality?

The answer may surprise you, and, like many influential scientific studies, it starts with rats.

The Rat Maze

Bob Rosenthal, PhD, is an experimental psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and he has spent the last four decades researching “the role of self-fulfilling prophecy in everyday life and laboratory situations.”

In this particular experiment, he labeled rat cages to indicate that the rats inside were either very smart or very unintelligent; the secret was that all of the rats were just normal everyday lab rats. He then presented the rats to a group of experimenters and told them that they would be working with a specific rat, which they believed to be either very smart or very unintelligent. The researchers’ task was to run their rats through a maze over the course of a couple of weeks and record their progress.

Do you think that the researchers’ preconceived notions about the rats’ abilities affected their rat's performance?

It actually had a very significant impact! The “smart” rats did twice as well as the “dumb” rats, even though the rats were all basically the same at the beginning of the study.

What Might Have Caused This?

Dr. Rosenthal concluded that the researchers’ expectations affected the way they interacted with their rats, which in turn affected the way the rats learned. “So when the experimenters thought that the rats were really smart, they felt more warmly towards the rats. And so they touched them more gently.”

How might this finding translate into human interaction? The research bears out the accuracy of Rosenthal’s study. The expectations of teachers impact their students’ scores on IQ tests; the expectations of parents impact whether or not their adolescent kids experiment with alcohol; the expectations of military trainers impact the speed at which a soldier can.

In all situations, your expectations really do have the capacity to change the behavior of those around you.

I instantly thought about how this could affect my teaching since that is both my occupation and my passion. If I expect all of my students to succeed, can that change their performance in my class? What if all of my students come to class expecting that I could teach them something of value? Would that change their performance in my class? Perhaps not 100 percent of the time.

But in understanding that our expectations have a significant role in shaping our life experiences, we may strive to see through those proverbial “rose-colored glasses” a little more often.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences allows students to grow and learn in their field. To learn more about GCU’s programs, visit our website or request more information by using the button at the top of the page.


  • “Batman.” (2015). Retrieved from
  • “Robert Rosenthal.” (2015). Retrieved from

More about Andrea:

Andrea Alden, PhD, is an instructor at Grand Canyon University, where she teaches undergraduate writing courses. She has been teaching writing-intensive courses since 2008, ranging from first-year composition to persuasive writing to business and professional writing, among others. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communication, her master’s degree in English with an emphasis in rhetoric and composition and her doctoral degree in English with an emphasis in rhetoric, composition, and linguistics. Her research interests are in the intersection of medical and legal discourse, and she is working on a book manuscript tentatively titled “Morality and Myth: A Rhetorical History of the Insanity Defense,” which is currently under contract with the University of Alabama Press.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.