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