Why do we perform better when someone has high expectations of us?
The Pygmalion effect, explained.
What is the Pygmalion Effect?
The Pygmalion effect describes situations where someone’s high expectations improves our behavior and therefore our performance in a given area. It suggests that we do better when more is expected of us.
Where this bias occurs
Imagine you are beginning a new project at work. Your boss tells you that he’s really excited to see the final product because he knows you’re going to do well.
Since your boss has high expectations for your performance, he might give you more support during the project. Additionally, to meet his expectations, you may change your behavior by spending more hours on the project, working overtime, and double-checking the quality of your work. Since both your boss and you have changed your behavior, the project may end up being more successful than it would originally have been if he hadn’t told you he believed in you. Your boss’ expectations made you work harder which led to improved performance and therefore a better outcome.
When positive expectations positively impact our behavior and our performance, we call it the Pygmalion effect. This phenomenon is most often associated with school or work performance since teachers or bosses often voice their expectations to their students or employees, respectively.
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Although the Pygmalion effect is subconscious, it demonstrates others’ expectations can greatly influence our performance. When someone thinks highly of us, we work hard to maintain that reputation.
If someone we respect or want to impress, such as a teacher or employer, believes we will succeed, they can influence our own impression of ourselves. Positive expectations allow us to take the necessary steps to meet those high expectations. We are likely to push ourselves harder because we believe that we can achieve success.
The Pygmalion effect acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy because pre-existing beliefs encourage more work, both by the person with expectations and the person who is being expected from. This combined effort increases the likelihood of success.
Although the Pygmalion effect has a positive influence on performance, it depends on the positive expectations of others. That means that individuals who don’t believe that others view them highly may suffer as a result. In this way, the Pygmalion effect exposes that stereotypes may be more damaging than they seem.
Inversely, if someone expects us to perform poorly based on our identity, we may actually do worse. This is called stereotype threat, and it seriously impairs marginalized groups every day. In one study, women asked to report their gender before completing a math test got worse scores than women who were not. This is because they were forced to reconcile with the stereotype that females are worse at math, impairing their performance.
Someone’s expectations don’t only impact how we act but also impact how they act. For example, if a teacher believes one of their students is really intelligent and will be successful, they may pay them more attention, give them more detailed feedback, and continue to challenge them. They may not treat other students the same, and the unequal consideration causes some students to fall behind while others thrive.
Since our expectations impact how we treat others, the Pygmalion effect only positively impacts those that we already demand a lot from. This can be especially damaging for young children who are malleable and still building their self-concept based on other people’s opinions.1 With this in mind, people in positions of power should be careful of managing and mediating their expectations because they have real consequences on others.
How it affects product
The Pygmalion effect may also impact how effectively teachers introduce new products into classroom settings. Digital resources can be great for engaging students to learn new information or skills—but only if teachers treat them as such. In other words, the teacher’s expectations for a product might determine how easily their students will utilize that product to enrich their education.
Pretend you’re a third-grade teacher using online software to teach your students how to type. Suppose you eagerly anticipate this technology will help your students learn. In that case, you might schedule more time for your students to practice typing and encourage them to view it as an educational game rather than a daunting task. Noticing your optimism, your students may feel encouraged to put more effort in. Together, you and your students’ high expectations for the software will actually help them improve at typing faster than they would have otherwise.
Of course, we can apply this lesson to any work setting: higher-ups should have a good attitude when introducing products to their employees. This positivity will spread, letting the technology increase engagement and productivity as it was designed to do. However, if higher-ups dismiss digital tools as a waste of time, they may become exactly that.
Pygmalion effect and AI
Just as when directing humans, having high expectations when directing AI may achieve better outputs. This isn’t because the algorithm interprets our high expectations and works harder to meet them (the technology isn’t quite that advanced yet!). Instead, our willingness to believe in machine learning will encourage us to use it more effectively. For example, when consulting generative AI with a task, we might devote more time and energy to crafting the perfect prompt, guiding the software toward generating the perfect response. Meanwhile, if we dismiss AI as a pointless technology, we may treat it as such, only offering a few words to guide its operations. And unfortunately, the resulting product will be the same quality that we expect.
Why it happens
The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon that describes how expectations can modify behavior. It provides evidence for the self-fulfilling prophecy, which is the idea that others’ beliefs about us become true because they impact how we behave.2 The Pygmalion effect specifically describes situations in which superiors’ positive predictions of our performance actually improve our outcome.
This bias occurs because others’ expectations impact both their own behavior and our behavior. If someone believes we are likely to succeed, they will treat us differently to help us achieve those goals. In turn, we try our best to meet those expectations.
Robert Rosenthal, the behavioral psychologist who first examined the Pygmalion effect in 1968, later proposed a four-factor theory as to why it occurs in a classroom context. Rosenthal identified the four factors as climate, input, output, and feedback.2
“Climate” refers to the fact that if a teacher has high expectations for their students, they may create a warm environment reflecting their feelings. “Input” suggests that teachers will give students they believe are intelligent better quality materials. “Output” means that teachers will give those students more opportunities to respond and engage in the classroom. The last factor, “feedback,” denotes that high performing students may receive more detailed feedback from their teachers on how to improve, creating an ongoing cycle.2
Why it is important
We must understand how expectations impact the behavior of both ourselves and others so that we can properly mediate those expectations for the best possible outcomes.
For one, the Pygmalion effect suggests that impressions matter. Having a good reputation with your boss or superior means that they will come to expect a lot from you, encouraging them to give you greater support so that you can best achieve your goals. For example, Rosenthal found that teachers paid the students who had been labeled as bloomers more attention and offered them more encouragement.3
If we are the ones whose expectations may influence others, we should try to maintain and express positive expectations in order to motivate people to meet those expectations. However, we also need to ensure that we don’t let our expectations of particular individuals overshadow other people that may also have as much to offer.
The Pygmalion effect can lead to differential treatment that may not be fair. We should ensure that we are careful not to favor just one or two students or employees. While this may help them succeed, it can leave others feeling unmotivated and discouraged, decreasing overall productivity.
How to avoid it
Unlike other biases, the Pygmalion effect is one we may want to welcome instead of avoid. However, we cannot activate it by ourselves, since this bias relies on other people’s expectations of us as a motive to succeed. However, awareness of the Pygmalion effect can ensure we put our best foot forward when we first meet our superiors.
In doing so, we can set high expectations from the start of a school year, project, or job. This strategy will make our superiors more likely to support us, challenge us, and guarantee that we succeed.
Alternatively, if we don’t feel as though our superiors have high expectations of us, we may feel discouraged, which will negatively impact our behavior. Instead, we should try to believe in ourselves as a constant source of motivation. Additionally, we may turn to people in our lives with high regards for us, like our friends and family, and use their beliefs as motivators to prove our employers or teachers wrong.
How it all started
The Pygmalion effect got its name from the Greek myth of Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman he later fell in love with. He wished that he could find a woman as beautiful as his sculpture to marry. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, granted his wish and transformed his sculpture into a living, breathing woman. Just as Pygmalion’s fixation on the sculpture allowed it to come to life, our focus on an expectation can impact the outcome in a given situation.3
The Pygmalion effect is also often called the Rosenthal effect, after the behavioral scientist who first demonstrated the psychological phenomenon in 1968. Along with Lenore Jacobson, an elementary school principal, Rosenthal examined whether teachers’ expectations of their students impacted their academic performance. The researchers anticipated that students would internalize their teacher’s positive expectations and hold onto the belief so much so that they would actually do better in school.4
Rosenthal and Jacobson gave students at Jacobson’s elementary school an IQ test at the beginning of the school year. They told the teachers that they were administering the test to predict which students would intellectually bloom over the year. Rosenthal and Jacobson then chose students at random and told their teachers that they had performed exceptionally well on the test, despite their actual results giving no indication that they would be intellectual bloomers.5
At the end of the study, students were given the same IQ test. While all students performed better the second time, Rosenthal and Jacobson found that students labeled intellectual bloomers had improved more than the other students. This was especially true in first and second-grade classrooms. From these results, the researchers concluded that a teacher expecting enhanced performance from students can actually cause enhanced performance, especially for young children.5
Pygmalion effect controversies
After Rosenthal and Jacobson conducted their original experiment in 1968, many psychologists initially embraced the Pygmalion effect as a legitimate bias. But since then, behavioral researchers have struggled to replicate these results in a classroom setting.8, 9, 10, 11 Most studies suffer from the same issue: the effect size is too small, or in other words, the teachers’ positive expectations were only improving students’ performance a small amount—so small it couldn’t statistically be considered proven.
In particular, a critical review by Lee Jussim and Kent Harber in 2005 discovered a strong correlation between teacher expectations and classroom performance.11 However, they suggested that the causation goes the other direction: rather than expectations affecting performance, it is performance that affects expectations. This reversed Pygmalion effect means that a teacher’s attitude towards their students only goes so far in guaranteeing academic achievement.
Another thing worth mentioning is that these studies struggle to control for confounding variables, such as socioeconomic status. For instance, it may be harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to be motivated by their teachers to pursue higher education because of other barriers like financial constraints. Meanwhile, students from affluent areas may be more easily motivated, knowing nothing else but their studies in the way of them going to college.
So what do we make of this statistical nightmare? Most still consider the Pygmalion effect as a legitimate bias impacting those in classrooms or workplaces. Although recent studies suggest that statistical strength may not be as strong as we once thought, it is still important to consider the impact of our expectations on others, no matter how small they may be.
Example 1 – Whole groups impact
While Rosenthal and Jacobson demonstrated a difference in performance between students who had been labeled as intellectual bloomers and a control group of students that were not, the Pygmalion effect could have occurred not because teachers thought positively about the intellectual bloomers, but because they thought negatively about the control group.2
Dov Eden, an organizational psychologist, wanted to ensure that it was in fact the positive expectations that led to improved performance. With this in mind, he conducted an experiment in which a control group was completely separate from the group with high expectations.6
Eden chose the platoons in the Israel Defense Force as his sample. Since each platoon has its own platoon leader, the experimental and control group could be kept completely separate from each other. The trainees were tested in four different areas: theoretical specialty, practical specialty, physical fitness, and target shooting. Since the former two areas are areas taught by platoon leaders, Eden predicted they would be most impacted by the Pygmalion effect.
Some platoon leaders were told that their entire group showed test scores higher than the average and that they could expect unusual achievements from their trainees. The leaders for the control group platoons were told nothing positive or negative about the potential of their trainees. Every other week, the examiners had follow-up sessions with platoon leaders. For those leaders who had been told to expect high potential, examiners asked them how the potential was manifesting itself to refresh expectancy induction. Eden held the final tests at the end of the ten-week study.6
The results indicated that trainees in the high-expectation groups on average performed better than the control groups. The difference was most significant for performance in theoretical and practical specialty—the areas directly taught by platoon leaders.
Eden concluded that the Pygmalion effect can impact whole groups, not just individuals. It is the positive expectations alone that lead to a difference in performance, no matter how many other people also receive them.6 Additionally, the areas trainees showed the most improvement were ones that leaders were in charge of, and individual trainees never learned about their test scores. This means the Pygmalion effect will still occur even if individuals don’t know what their superior’s expectations are. A leader changing their behavior is enough to improve their group’s performance.
Example 2 – Addiction treatment impact
Most examples and studies about the Pygmalion effect focus on its role in work and school situations. However, Hakan Jenner, a professor of pedagogy with a focus on youth substance abuse, believed it also could impact clinical treatment, as therapists also have expectations about their patients’ success.7
As Jenner notes, therapists typically label and diagnose their clients. Therapists may also have to monitor motivation levels to determine whether the treatment program is a good fit for their clients. Drawing from a literature review, Jenner demonstrated that the Pygmalion effect likely influences treatment because therapists often see motivation as the main agent determining whether patients will succeed in treatment.7 This means that a therapist’s expectations surrounding motivation might influence how they deliver the treatment as well.
Through his previous work, Jenner found that prior commitment to enrollment in an alcohol addiction program had little impact on whether a patient decided to continue in future programs. Jenner concluded that treatment factors are more influential in treatment success than individual factors. Jenner suggested that climate, one of Rosenthal’s four factors, was the main propagator for the Pygmalion effect in treatment. If clinicians have a positive outlook and cooperate more with their patients because they believe they will succeed, this is indeed more likely to happen.
From his research, Jenner discovered that for the best possible treatment outcomes, therapist expectations and motivation must be high because these will lead to the Pygmalion effect.7
What it is
The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon that describes how others’ positive expectations of us can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, improving our performance.
Why it happens
The Pygmalion effect happens because as social creatures, we are influenced by others’ expectations. If we expect success from someone else, we are likely to give them greater support in order to help them achieve that success. Similarly, if we believe someone has high expectations of us, we will work harder to meet those expectations. Expectations act as a prophecy because they become motivators for hard work.
Example 1 – The Pygmalion effect occurs for entire groups
Often, when studying the Pygmalion effect, researchers create high expectations in employers and teachers for particular individuals they are in charge of, without isolating them from the control group. However, the Pygmalion effect still occurs if a leader believes an entire group has higher than average potential for success, diminishing the influence of individual differences.
Example 2 – The Pygmalion effect is important for therapists
While most research surrounding the Pygmalion effect takes place in school or work environments, therapists are also leaders with expectations of their patients. If a therapist believes their patient will succeed in addiction treatment, they are more likely to create a positive and supportive atmosphere, which in turn helps the patient succeed. Since the Pygmalion effect occurs in treatment, therapists should try their best to maintain high expectations of their patients to help them meet their therapeutic goals.
How to activate it
The Pygmalion effect leads to desirable outcomes for those individuals labeled as having high potential. If we are in a leadership position, like teachers, bosses, and therapists are, we should always maintain and express positive expectations to increase our support, as well as how those individuals behave.
Related TDL articles
High-Potential Employee Programs Can Be Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Here Are Three Ways Firms Can Avoid This Problem
In this article, behavioral consultants Natasha Ouslis and Zad El-Makkaoui examine the Pygmalion effect in relation to high-potential employee programs. Ouslis and El-Makkaoui discuss that while such programs are usually built with good intentions, employers have to be careful not to ignore some employees because they don’t fit into their preconceived notions of what success looks like.
In this article, Melina Moleskis discusses an iconic example of the Pygmalion effect: classroom learning. In particular, she delves into Rosenthal and Jacobson’s original research, and how preexisting stereotypes may cause teachers to favorably treat some students over others. Finally, Moleskis provides a series of steps to remove biases from expectations so that all students have a chance at benefiting from the Pygmalion effect.