The Chameleon

Paul Smith

“It’s going great. The product is cool and so far things are going well.” I was happy to hear that a good friend of mine was happy with his new job.

After a bit more chatting, we started discussing the talk I was preparing for RubyConf. When I touched on the “Chameleon Effect” his eyes lit up. What I described happened to him daily at his new job.

The Problem

Although my friend loved the company and the product, there was a member of the team that made him feel as if he was an incompetent programmer. This happens far too often. Coworkers treating others like they are foolish, open source maintainers treating new developers like they aren’t capable of contributing.

The question is, does how we are treated affect our work? Does it affect how we build our product? If so, how much?

Let’s turn to psychology and behavioral science to figure out how this might affect learning, performance and perception.

The Experiment

How we treat our coworkers and clients will affect our projects more than we might think.

A group of researchers contacted a command training school in Israel to run an experiment. They told the training officers at the school that the new recruits had been put through a preliminary test and that they had been assigned one of three different statuses.

The three statuses designated command potential based on various tests. The three groups were high, regular and unknown command potential (due to insufficient information).

The trainees did not know anything about these scores; only the training officers did.

At the end of their 15 week training camp the soldiers took a standardized test and the researchers found that those with “high” command potential scored an average of 79.98, those with “unknown” scored 72.43 and those with “regular” scored 65.18.

The Predictions

So what does this mean? It seems that the psychologists accurately predicted which soldiers would do best. It probably wouldn’t mean much, except that the test was rigged.

The statuses were completely invented. The soldiers never took any tests before their training. The real test was what would happen when the training officers thought that some people had more potential than others.

When a person is treated a certain way, they tend to take on those attributes, like a chameleon blending in to its surroundings. Both the trainers and the students were chameleons. The trainers changed how they treated their students based on what they thought the students abilities were. The students then took on the characteristics that their trainers thought they had. In psychology, this is called the Pygmalion and Golem effects. The Pygmalion effect refers to people taking on positive attributes and the Golem effect refers to people taking on negative attributes. The combination of the effects is referred to in Sway as the Chameleon Effect.

The Solution

One of the things I loved about my apprenticeship with thoughtbot was that I was treated just like every other full time developer. Everyone expected that I could learn what I needed to, and helped along the way. I never felt that I was dumb or inferior. When I asked a question, I didn’t fear that I would be thought of as incapable or inferior.

Treating people as competent, skilled and valuable will actually make them more competent, skilled and valuable. Treating people like fools will cause them to act more like a fool.

We can do better. In fact, it’s already being done. The next great open source contributor might just need a little confidence in themselves. Share some of yours.