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 comes to see you and 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, because you want to meet his expectations, you may change your behavior as well. You might spend more hours on the project, working overtime, and double-check the quality of your work. Because both your boss and you changed your behavior, the project may end up being more successful than it would originally have been if your boss hadn’t told you he believed in you. Your boss’ expectation made you work harder which led to improved performance and therefore a better outcome.

When positive expectations positively impact our behavior and our performance, it is known as the Pygmalion effect. The Pygmalion effect is most often associated with school or work performance, since teachers or bosses often voice their expectations to their students or employees.

Individual effects

Although the Pygmalion effect occurs mostly subconsciously, it shows that others’ expectations can greatly influence our performance. When someone thinks highly of us, we work hard to maintain those expectations.

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 prophecy because pre-existing beliefs lead to more effort being put in both by the person with the expectations, and the person who is being expected from, increasing the likelihood that success will ensue.

Systemic effects

Although the Pygmalion effect has a positive influence on performance, it is dependent on positive expectations. That means that individuals who don’t believe that others have high expectations of themselves may suffer as a result. The Pygmalion effect demonstrates that stereotypes may be more damaging than they seem.

Someone’s high expectations for our performance don’t only impact how we act, but also impacts 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 treatment 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 expect a lot from. It can be especially damaging for young children who are malleable and still building their self-concept based on other people’s opinions.1 People in positions of influence therefore need to be careful of managing and mediating their expectations.

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 based on the idea that others’ beliefs about us become true because their belief impacts how we behave.2 The Pygmalion effect specifically describes situations in which superior’s positive opinions on performance will lead to better performance actually occurring.

The Pygmalion effect occurs because other’s 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, when someone expects us to succeed, we try our best to meet those expectations.

Robert Rosenthal, a behavioral psychologist who first examined the Pygmalion effect in 1968, later proposed a four-factor theory as to why it occurs in 1973. Rosenthal identified climate, input, output and feedback were the four factors that led to teacher’s expectation of their students impacting those students’ behavior.2

Climate referred to the fact that if a teacher has high expectations for their students, they may create a warm socio-economic environment. They feel positively towards their students and the classroom would reflect this attitude. Input suggested that teachers will give students they believe are intelligent more and better-quality materials. Output meant that teachers will give those students more opportunities to respond and engage in the classroom. The last factor was feedback, that referred to the likelihood that better performing students may receive more detailed feedback from their teachers on how to improve.2

Why it is important

It is important for us to understand how expectations impact our behavior and our subsequent outcomes 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 of you, and this may cause 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 labelled 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 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 because while it may help them succeed, it can leave others feeling unmotivated and discouraged.

How to activate it

The Pygmalion effect is not something we can activate by ourselves, because it relies on other people’s expectations of us as a motive to succeed. However, awareness of the Pygmalion effect can ensure that we put our best foot forward when we first meet our superiors.

In doing so, we can create high expectations from the start of a school year, project or job, that make it more likely that our superiors will better support us, challenge us, and ensure that we succeed.

However, 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. We may want to look to other people in our life that do have high expectations of 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 that 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 turned his sculpture into a woman. Pygmalion’s fixation on the sculpture allowed it to come to life, just as 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 one of the researchers that first demonstrated the psychological phenomenon in a study in 1968. Robert Rosenthal, a pioneer of behavioral science, along with Lenore Jacobson, a principal of an elementary school, wanted to examine whether teacher’s expectations of their students impacted their scholastic performance. They held the belief that students would internalize a 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. The teachers of these students were told that the test was being administered to predict which students would intellectually bloom over the year. Rosenthal and Jacobson then actually 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 those students who had been labelled intellectual bloomers had improved to a greater degree than the other students. This was especially true for first and second grade children. From these results, they concluded that a teacher expecting enhanced performance from students can actually lead to enhanced performance, especially for young children.5

Example 1 - Whole groups impact

While Rosenthal and Jacobson demonstrated a difference in performance between students who had been labelled 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

Dr. Dov Eden, an organizational psychologist, wanted to ensure that it was in fact the positive expectations that led to improved performance. He therefore conducted a study in which a control group was completely separate from the group with high expectations.6

Eden conducted his study using platoons in the Israel Defense Force, because each platoon has its own platoon leader. The trainees were tested in four different areas: theoretical specialty, practical specialty, physical fitness, and target shooting. The former two areas are areas taught by platoon leaders, and Eden predicted these areas 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 the trainees in their group. 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, in order to refresh expectancy induction. Tests were again conducted at the end of ten weeks.6

The results indicated that trainees in the high-expectation groups on average performed better as a group than the control groups. The difference was most significant for performance in theoretical and practical specialty, which are areas taught by platoon leaders.

From these results, Eden concluded that the Pygmalion effect can impact whole groups, not just individuals, and that it is in fact positive expectations that lead to a difference in performance.6 Additionally, because the areas that trainees showed the most improvement were ones that leaders were in charge of, and individual trainees were never told about their test scores, Eden’s study demonstrates that the Pygmalion effect will still occur even if individuals don’t know what their superior’s expectations are. This suggests that a leader changing their behavior is enough for improved performance.

Example 2 - Addiction treatment impact

Most examples and studies about the Pygmalion effect focus on its role in work and school situations. However, Dr. Hakan Jenner, a professor of pedagogy with a focus on youth substance abuse, believed it also could impact treatment, as therapists can also have expectations about their patients’ success.7

As Jenner notes, therapists often have to label and categorize their clients. They may have to indicate whether their patients are motivated or whether the treatment program is a good fit for them. Drawing from a literature review, Jenner demonstrates that the Pygmalion effect is likely to influence treatment because therapists often see motivation or willpower as the main agent that determines whether patients will succeed in treatment.7

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 the program. Jenner therefore concluded that treatment factors are a more influential factor in treatment success. Jenner suggested that climate, one of Rosenthal’s four factors, was the main propagator for the Pygmalion effect in treatment. If treatment staff are positive and they cooperate with their patients because they believe they will succeed, patients are in fact more likely to succeed.

From his research, Jenner concluded that for the best possible outcomes to ensue, therapist expectation and motivation must be high, because these will lead to the Pygmalion effect.7

Summary

What it is

The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon that describes how other’s positive expectations of us can become a prophecy, as they lead to improved performance.

Why it happens

The Pygmalion effect happens because as social creatures, we are influenced by our own and other’s expectations. If we expect success from an individual, 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, without isolating them from the control group. However, it has been found that 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 is based on school and 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 need to ensure to maintain high expectations of their patients for success to ensue.

How to activate it

The Pygmalion effect leads to desirable outcomes for those individuals which are labelled 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 because these expectations will actually impact how we treat those that we are supporting, as well as how those individuals behave.

Related articles

High-Potential Employee Programs Can Be Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Here Are Three Ways Firms Can Avoid This Problem

In this article, Natasha Ouslis and Zad El-Makkaoui, two of our writers who both work in behavioral consulting, 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.

Sources

  1. You Are Mom. (2020, May 1). Negative consequences of the Pygmalion effect on children. https://youaremom.com/children/what-should-you-know/childhood-behavior/pygmalion-effect-2/
  2. Kierein, N. M., & Gold, M. A. (2000). Pygmalion in work organizations: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21(8), 913-928.
  3. Farnam Street. (2019, October 22). The Pygmalion effect: Proving them right. https://fs.blog/2018/05/pygmalion-effect/
  4. Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  5. Chang, J. (2011). A case study of the “Pygmalion effect”: Teacher expectations and student achievement. International Education Studies, 4(1), 198-201. https://doi.org/10.5539/ies.v4n1p198
  6. Eden, D. (1990). Pygmalion without interpersonal contrast effects: Whole groups gain from raising manager expectations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75(4), 394-398. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.75.4.394
  7. Jenner, H. (1990). The Pygmalion effect:. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 7(2), 127-133. https://doi.org/10.1300/j020v07n02_09