The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to higher performance. Its name comes from a Greek myth in which a sculptor, Pygmalion, loved one of his sculptures so strongly his pleas convinced Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to turn the sculpture into a human. The effect can be negative, as well as positive, just like in the play by G. B. Shaw, where a mere flower girl gets turned into a proper lady. The Pygmalion effect is also known as the Rosenthal Experiment, named after the research of Robert Rosenthal at Harvard. To see how this effect works in real life, read on!

The full story
Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to higher performance. It can be best understood by a circle where OUR BELIEFS about another person’s abilities influence OUR ACTIONS towards the other person. This action has an impact on the OTHER’S BELIEFS about themselves. The beliefs about themselves cause the OTHER’S ACTIONS towards us, which again reinforces OUR BELIEFS about that person. And so on and on and on…

Your beliefs

Let’s look at an example and start with YOUR BELIEFS:

Imagine you are the coach of a basketball team and you observe your team on the first day: Chris and Joe are new members of your team. Chris reminds you of a famous player, Joe reminds you of an annoying boy from your high school years. Unconsciously you decide what to expect of each one of them.

Your actions

Your beliefs influence YOUR ACTIONS:

When Chris enters the court you are happy to see him. When he plays, you push him to do better, practice harder, stay an extra hour. If he makes a mistake you explain to him how to improve. When Joe comes in, you hardly notice him. You are glad to see him score, but you don’t give him much feedback and don’t invest extra time in his training. When Joe makes a mistake you are a little annoyed.

Their beliefs
Their beliefs

Your actions impact THEIR BELIEFS about themselves:

Chris feels you appreciate him and he appreciates you in return. He believes in his own success. Joe feels you have little patience and appreciation for him. He does not believe in his own success.

Their actions
Their Actions

Their belief about themselves causes THEIR ACTIONS towards you:

Chris finds more and more joy in playing, and he never misses a training session. During the games, he gives 100% all the time. Joe finds less joy in playing than before and doesn’t give his full effort in the games. He starts to miss the training sessions sometimes.

Your beliefs reinforced
beliefs reinforced

This reinforces YOUR BELIEFS about them: 

You see how Chris enjoys playing, how he trains hard and shows a fast increase in his performance. Joe seems not to be very motivated, his skills don’t increase much and he starts to show up less. You knew it right away. Thank God, your instincts were right.

The research

The Pygmalion effect is also known as the Rosenthal Experiment, named after the research of Robert Rosenthal at Harvard. In a first study, he challenged test subjects to coach rats through a maze. Half of the group were told their rats were extremely intelligent and specifically trained. The other half were told that their rats were ‘dumb’. In fact, the rats were all the same. During the experiment, however, the ‘smart rats’ performed well better than the ‘dumb ones’. This showed how the expectations of the coaches influenced even the performance of rats.

Pygmalion in school

Rosenthal then did the “Pygmalion in School” Study together with Lenore Jacobson: 

At the beginning of the school year, a group of elementary school teachers were told that some of their new pupils had extraordinary talent and potential. This information, which was completely made up, was given about random average students in each class, all students had done an IQ test in advance. By the end of the year, the students that were described as more talented had significantly increased their performance in the IQ test, compared to the rest of the class.

your choice

Robert Rosenthal concluded: “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” What do you think about this theory? And if you believe it, is there a way to prevent ourselves from being shaped by others in a negative way?

“Great video. Thanks a lot, really an eye opener for many.”

– Yesho Pavan


Dig deeper!

Classroom exercise

Let your students experience the Pygmalion Effect; a positive version of it, of course! 🙂 Split your classroom into boys and girls and set a task, or perhaps a little challenge. Tell the girls, in confidence, that girls are known to perform better in the task. Likewise, tell the boys that they are known to be better at it. See what happens and let us know.

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