The Pygmalion effect was first established in 1965, when a Harvard psychologist named Robert Rosenthal approached the headmaster of an elementary school in order to administer a special IQ test to the school’s students. He got approval, and shortly thereafter reported that approximately 20% of the students were going to ‘bloom’ academically in the following year. Unsurprisingly, these designated students excelled when tested again almost a year later.
But here comes the twist. The IQ test Rosenthal used was nothing special, instead, it was just a standard IQ test. Not only that, but that 20% percent was chosen completely at random. It turns out that it was the teacher’s expectations that resulted in this difference, which is exactly what this experiment was trying to prove.
This experiment, named the “Oak School Experiment”, and the academic paper that came out of it, have become one of the most cited and discussed psychological studies ever conducted. The discovered effect has become one of the most prominent concepts in psychology and management, and it has been named “The Pygmalion Effect” ever since.
What is The Pygmalion Effect?
The Pygmalion Effect, also known as the Rosenthal effect, states that when a teacher/manager/supervisor has high expectations of someone, that seems to increase the person’s performance. That has been proven true even when the person with the expectations tries their best to hide it.
As a concept, it is often associated with the concept of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, which states that even a false belief might end up becoming true, as it influences both beliefs and actions. As soon as the belief becomes true, it creates a feedback loop, as we then assume we were always correct.
The reasons the Pygmalion effect is, well, in effect, is because when we interact with and have expectations of others, we tend to offer a lot of subconscious clues about these expectations, through our tone or body language.
In fact, in the late 1800s, there was a horse, Clever Hans, that was believed to be so smart that it could understand, and even solve, various calculations. In fact, it was thought that he could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and even tell the time and the date, all by tapping his hoof. It was later discovered by researchers, though, that Clever Hans wasn’t actually performing these amazing feats. While there was no trickery involved, Clever Hans had learned to identify and interpret subtle clues. For instance, when his tapping was getting close to the right number, the questioner would offer subconscious clues, like tilting his head. The horse then detected that and stopped.
We can safely assume that if a horse was able to detect and interpret these subconscious clues, then humans are capable of that as well.
The Pygmalion Effect’s name comes from Greek mythology, and specifically from the myth of Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a sculptor, who, after getting inspired by a dream, created a beautiful statue of a woman out of ivory. It is said that the statue was so beautiful that he fell in love with it. Unable to love another human being, Pygmalion appealed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to bring the statue, Galatea, to life. Aphrodite granted his wish, and the couple then married and went on to have a daughter, Paphos. This is supposed to be where the city’s name in Cyprus is originating from.
The initial Rosenthal-Jacobson study proved the existence of the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom. In the last 5 decades since the study was performed, though, a great number of scientists have tracked the same effect in various different settings. The Pygmalion Effect has now been identified in higher education, in management and, in the military, at home, and practically anywhere where leadership plays a role.
When a manager has high expectations of his employees, they tend to perform substantially better. In fact, a recent study has found that Pygmalion leadership training was the most effective leadership development intervention. Most importantly, parents having high hopes of their children seems to be one of the highest factors in the child’s success.
While the Pygmalion Effect is certainly true, it does not mean that you can just expect whatever you want from someone else. Too high expectations can become burdening and overwhelming for the person, and might even result in the opposite of the desired outcome. Expecting miracles is a recipe for frustration on both ends.
Also, the fact that the Pygmalion Effect has high statistical significance to the performance of a person, it is by no means an absolute rule. There is no guarantee that a person will actually perform better if you have high expectations of them. In those cases, unmet high expectations might result in more frustration and disappointment.
The best way to mitigate these is to aim to always have realistic and objective expectations of a person. Also, if you feel that another person has unrealistic expectations of you, it might be a good idea to have a conversation on the topic.
The opposite is also true: The Golem Effect
While there is substantially less research on the opposite relationship, there are now sufficient studies to prove that the opposite of the Pygmalion Effect is also true. That means that when a teacher/manager/supervisor has low expectations of someone, that seems to decrease the person’s performance. That, too, has been proven true even when the person with the expectations tries their best to hide it.
This effect has been named ‘The Golem Effect’, after the golem creature in Jewish mythology. The reasons that the Golem Effect has less research backing it is due to ethical reasons (it is easier to perform positive studies). Once again, this effect has been proven true in multiple settings, and, along with the Pygmalion effect, they form one of the most important concepts in both management and psychology.
These work on your own self-expectations
It is long known that what you expect of yourself is a determining factor in how well you will perform in any setting. Your internal beliefs about yourself play an important role in your mindset and your actions, which then, in turn, define your performance. Based on the Pygmalion and the Golem effects, it is easy to understand that the beliefs you hold influence subconscious actions and decisions, which is why your self-expectations matter.
Your own self-expectations seem to also have an important connection with learning, and this is where growth mindset comes in. Growth mindset states that you can do anything, as long as you devote the proper amount of effort and time in an effective manner. Your performance is not bounded by the limit of your abilities and your potential is not predetermined. As soon as you embrace this mindset (which has proven to be the truth through a lot of research), immediately your expectations of yourself will be higher, which will then result in increased performance.
The Memory Pygmalion and Golem effects
An interesting concept I came across at some point is that the Pygmalion and the Golem effects seem to have an important effect on our own memories. When you tell everyone, and yourself, that you have a lousy memory, chances are that your brain is going to prove you right. On the other hand, if you actually believe that your memory can perform well, then you will witness an improvement in your memory without even trying.
The thing is, that there is no such thing as a lousy memory. Our memory works in a certain way, and there are various techniques that you can use to enhance it, which are applicable to all of you.
This concept came to my attention through Jonathan Levi. You can watch his video about the Memory Pygmalion and Golem effects right below:
Sidenote: If you are interested in the Masterclass Jonathan talks about in the video, you can find it here. Note that this is an affiliate link.
How to leverage the Pygmalion Effect
Identify existing beliefs
The first step in this process is to identify your internal beliefs. Try and figure out all the skills that you feel you are lousy at, and preferably write them down. In my opinion, you should also note all positive internal beliefs, and maybe try to draw the connection between your expectations of yourself and your performance in each field.
In this stage, you should also identify your expectations of those close to you. Think about your family, your close friends, and your colleagues, one at a time, and be honest with yourself about what you expect of them. Chances are you will find out a few deviations between what you think you expect of others, and what you actually expect.
Develop a growth mindset
The next step is to deliberately work on developing a growth mindset, both for yourself and for others. Remember that anyone can do anything, as long as they devote the proper amount of time and effort. This is also true for yourself. Read my article on growth mindset for more details on the concept and on the process you can use to develop it for yourself.
In order to be able to develop a growth mindset, and to deliberately change your expectations, you need to educate yourself. As a first priority, start learning how to learn as soon as possible. Knowing how to learn is one of those key skills, that can make everything else seem easier and more effective. This is what this whole blog is about, so you can start this journey here.
Change your expectations of others
Now that you know that your expectations can actually have an impact on other people’s performance, go on and change them. Combined with the fact that you now believe that anyone can achieve anything if they put their mind and heart to it, this change shouldn’t be too hard. The Pygmalion Effect will take care of the rest.
The Pygmalion and the Golem effects play an important role in our lives, in many different fields. Be it work, home, or learning, what you expect of others and what others expect from you both play an important role in each person’s performance. Being aware of that will both help you increase your expectations (and thus the performance) of others, and to also be less influenced by what others believe of you (which is very useful if others expect little).
Moreover, these effects play an important role in how we ourselves perceive our reality and our capabilities. Try to understand that you can do anything you decide to, as long as you devote the appropriate amount of effort (note that I never claimed it is easy, just that it is possible). Increase your expectations of yourself, and surely your performance will be increased as well.
Call to Action
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