The Pygmalion Effect

The Basic Idea

A common storyline in movies is that of the bad-boy jock: he does poorly in his academics and skirmishes with all his teachers, except one. The teacher who believes in him when nobody else does upturns his life trajectory – and he usually ends up in a reputable college as a direct result.

Although cliché, there’s a lot of truth to the storyline described above. When people don’t believe in us, we tend not to believe in ourselves. Conversely, when someone expects more from us, we work harder in order to meet those expectations. Our tendency to live up to someone’s expectations is known as the Pygmalion Effect. We commonly see The Pygmalion Effect in academic or work settings because students and subordinates are expected to live up to their teachers’ and bosses’ expectations.

Leaders should always expect the very best of those around them. They know that people can change and grow.

– American scholar and organizational expert, Warren G. Bennis

Key Terms

Self-fulfilling prophecy: A prediction that becomes true merely because the prediction exists.2 For example, if your boss predicts that you’re a hard worker, you’ll change your behavior to make that prediction come true.

Placebo effect: Change that occurs because someone thinks they have received a medical substance. Placebos (a ‘fake’ medical treatment) often end up having the same effect psychologically as the perceived medicine. If a patient expects their headache to go away from taking a pill, they might feel better even if they take a placebo.3 The placebo effect works in a similar way to the Pygmalion Effect.

Implicit bias: a bias that, while unconscious, affects our treatment of others. A teacher is likely to exhibit an implicit bias towards students based on their perceived intelligence.

LMX Theory: the leader-member exchange theory suggests that when managers have a closer relationship with their subordinates, subordinates perform better at work. Performance is impacted because managers will treat those subordinates differently, giving them greater trust and support and because subordinates want to live up to their managers’ expectations.

Stereotypes: snap judgments people make about a person based on preexisting beliefs. Stereotypes can change the way that we treat someone. If a teacher is told one of their students is extremely intelligent, the teacher may believe that they are hard workers and give them more challenging work, which in turn allows the child to learn more and perform better academically.

History

The Pygmalion Effect’s namesake is a character from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the Greek myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who carves a statue of a beautiful woman. He is so infatuated by the sculpture that he begs the gods to bring it to life. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, grants Pygmalion his wish and turns the statue into a real woman.4 It was thanks to Pygmalion’s fixation on the statue that it came to life. The moral of the story is if we fixate on others’ perceptions of us, we can make them come to life.

The Pygmalion Effect is also commonly referred to as the Rosenthal effect, after Robert Rosenthal, the researcher who coined the term. Rosenthal is a pioneer of behavioral science and is most known for his work on experimenter expectancy effects. When conducting experiments, he observed that the researcher’s expectations influenced the outcome of a study.

In 1963, Rosenthal and another influential psychologist, Kermit Fode, examined how experimenter bias impacted the performance of lab rats. Half of the participants-turned-experimenters were told that they were working with bright rats while the other half thought they were working with dull rats. Participants guided their rats out of a maze. Importantly, even though the ‘bright’ and ‘dull’ labels were fictitious, rats that were labelled bright showed continual improvements in their performances whereas ‘dull’-labelled rats did not. Rosenthal and Fode concluded that depending on the rats’ perceived intelligence, experimenters interacted with their rats differently, demonstrating that experimenters’ beliefs about the capability of their subjects influence subjects’ performances.5

Rosenthal wanted to see if the same effects would hold in humans. He collaborated with Leonore Jacobson, a principal of an elementary school, to see if teachers’ perceptions of their students impacted student performance. Rosenthal and Jacobson gave students an IQ test at the beginning of the school year and informed teachers the test was being administered to see which students would bloom intellectually. They then reported false scores to the teachers, choosing a few students at random as gifted students. Teachers were told these students had done exceptionally well on the test. 6

At the end of the school year, Rosenthal returned to the elementary school and administered IQ tests on the same students. Despite the lack of relationship between initial test scores and intelligence, students labeled as intellectual bloomers outperformed unlabelled students. Rosenthal speculated that this improvement occurred because teachers gave students labeled as intellectual bloomers more attention.5

Shawn Achor, a positive psychology expert, gave further insight into what had happened in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1964 study and said that “the belief the teachers had in the students’ potential had been unwittingly and nonverbally communicated. More important, these nonverbal messages were then digested by the students and transformed into reality. 7

Consequences

The Pygmalion Effect emphasizes the deciding influence of perceptions on behavior. The way that someone perceives us changes our own behavior, and in turn, changes the way that they treat us. If we tell a friend that we’re going to lose ten pounds and they believe we can, our motivation to act on our weight-loss intent will increase. And since the friend thinks we’ll be able to reach our goal, they might suggest going for a run with us instead of grabbing a hamburger.

Stereotypes are also related to the Pygmalion Effect. Classroom management expert Robert Tauber conducted a study asking people to list their assumptions about the following three individuals: a cheerleader, a minority woman with four kids at the supermarket using food stamps, and a person standing outside smoking on a cold day. Most of the assumptions people made were negative. Having negative perceptions leads to implicit biases and can limit people’s ability to be successful; they can prevent someone from being hired, promoted, or accepted.8

Alternatively, positive perceptions can allow people to thrive. George Johnson, a porter at Tulane University, believed that he could teach anyone to be a proficient computer operator – and his hunch was right. Thanks to the Pygmalion Effect, George believing that students could succeed made them adapt their behavior to meet his expectations.8

The Pygmalion Effect is a vicious cycle when it comes to negative perceptions. People’s beliefs and expectations affect their behavior towards others, which then influences the person’s beliefs about themselves, resulting in confirming behavior.9 This effect makes it virtually impossible to move beyond people’s expectations. The leader-membership exchange theory supports these consequences, as it suggests when managers group employees into an in-group and an out-group, they treat the in-group more favorably than the out-group. The out-group’s behavior is affected adversely, while the in-group is given the room to succeed, causing the gap between the two to increase.

Since expectations can have such a powerful influence on people’s lives, we should try to keep them positive. Kids can be especially impressionable and influenced by the Pygmalion Effect. American astronomer, Carl Hagan once said, “the visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.8 We should be aware of our expectations and keep them to ourselves when they are negative, attempt to identify positive traits in everyone and be encouraging to others.9

The Pygmalion Effect also informs us that first impressions matter because they can change how someone treats us in the future, known as the first impression bias. Thus, we should do everything in our power when meeting someone for the first time to appear positively, so they have high expectations of us that we can then fulfill.

Controversies

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1965 study sparked a great deal of debate when it was published. Can IQ seriously be modified just through teachers’ expectations? Such findings suggest that nurture is largely responsible for intelligence, but many people claim that there is a biological basis to IQ – the classic nurture vs nature debate!

Rosenthal was criticized for cherry-picking data to support his hypothesis and for skewing the initial IQ scores. Psychologist Robert Thorndike wrote an extensive criticism of the study identifying these flaws. Thorndike did not think it likely that multiple students in a small sample would have IQ scores labelling them as mentally disabled. Thorndike instead argued that students’ IQ only appeared to have improved because of regression toward the mean.10 Regression toward the mean is a statistical phenomenon whereby extreme outcomes tend to be followed by more moderate outcomes because moderate ones are, by definition, more likely.11 For example, while you might play an exceptionally good baseball game and get four home runs (an outlying performance) the next time you play, you are more likely to perform in an average way and only get one home run.

Thorndike also pointed to other mathematical errors in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s methodology and criticized them for making grandiose claims that led to policy reform without credible data.10 It seems as though Rosenthal fell victim to his own effect: his high expectations for his experiments skewed the way he performed them, contaminating the results.

The Pygmalion Effect has proved to be difficult to replicate in future studies. Some studies found that the expectations did not have as prominent an influence in organizational settings with female leaders compared to male leaders. Other studies suggested that it might be useful for teachers to treat students differently, according to their specific needs. Giving a student with a low understanding of algebra a set of difficult algebra questions might just discourage him.12

Managerial Expectations on Performance

Even before Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1965 study, people noticed that expectations influenced outcomes, especially in the workplace. In 1961, Alfred Oberlander, the manager of a life insurance company, conducted a study to see whether his expectations of his employees would impact their performance.13

Oberlander noticed that outstanding insurance agencies grew faster than average agencies and that even new insurance agents in outstanding agencies performed better, regardless of their experience. The best were simply getting better, increasing the gap between insurance agencies. To see whether his observations were due to agents in outstanding agencies meeting high expectations, he divided his employees into groups based on their abilities. He grouped his superior agents into one unit with his best manager, his average agents into one unit with an average manager, and his low-producing agents with his worst manager. Then, he asked the superior agent team to produce two-thirds of the volume that the entire company had achieved during the previous year. 13

Soon after Oberlander had grouped his employees, people across the agency began to refer to his superior group as “super-staff” because of their high spirits and productivity levels. Their efforts over the first twelve weeks surpassed Oberlander’s expectations, which he took as proof that “groups of people of sound ability can be motivated beyond their apparently normal productive capacities” when they are isolated from poor performers. 13 Although Oberlander did not identify the Pygmalion Effect, it could explain the observed changes. Once people are labelled as productive workers, they are treated differently by their peers and begin to change their own behavior. The superior agents sought to meet Oberlander’s high expectations and performed well as a result.

Pygmalion Effect in Romantic Relationships

The Pygmalion Effect is usually discussed in reference to superior-subordinate relationships, like between teachers and students or managers and employees. However, the Pygmalion Effect can also occur as a result of our partner’s expectations.

Couples often grow together because of positive expectations. If we believe that our partners will succeed in their career, we act as another motivating factor for them to work hard. They don’t want to let us down because those expectations might be the reason we are dating them in the first place. Our support and conviction create an environment for our partners to thrive. 14

Positive expectations also bleed into the overall state of the relationship, not just on individual success. If someone believes that their relationship will work out and stand the test of time, they are more likely to behave in ways that make that possible. They could be more willing to compromise and work through the problems in the relationship. Alternatively, negative expectations make it unlikely that either partner will put in the work necessary to maintain the bond.14

Related TDL Content

Do High-Potential Employee Programs Work?

High-potential employee programs bank on the Pygmalion Effect for their success. These programs are designed to identify talented employees early on so they can nurture them and fast-track them into leadership roles. In this article, our writers Natasha Ouslis and Zad El-Makkaoui describe the effects of high-potential employee programs and warn employers not to ignore employees outside of this group just because they don’t fit in with their stereotypical ideas of what success looks like.

The Halo Effect in Consumer Perception: Why Small Details Make a Big Difference

People’s expectations and first impressions have a strong influence on their behavior towards others and can also impact their attitude towards a product. In this article, our writer Itamar Shatz explores how the halo effect – that an identification of one positive characteristic positively influences our overall opinion of someone or something – can cause people to quickly dismiss a product with a small flaw. Since people are quick to judge, manufacturers need to ensure that they spend just as much time on the aestheticism of a product as its functionality.

Sources

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  10. Taylor, C. (1970). The Expectations of Pygmalion’s Creators. Educational Leadership, 161-164. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_197011_taylor.pdf
  11. Regression Toward the Mean: An Introduction with Examples. (2020, October 1). Farnam Street. https://fs.blog/2015/07/regression-to-the-mean/
  12. McLeod, S. H. (1995). Pygmalion or golem? Teacher affect and efficacy. College Composition and Communication, 46(3), 369. https://doi.org/10.2307/358711
  13. Livingston, J. S. (2003, January 1). Pygmalion in Management. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2003/01/pygmalion-in-management
  14. Bloom, L., & Bloom, C. (2018, August 16). The Pygmalian Effect in Couples. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/stronger-the-broken-places/201808/the-pygmalian-effect-in-couples

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