What is the Pygmalion effect?
The Pygmalion effect refers to the more or less conscious interpretation and belief of how reality should be. We, therefore, adapt our behavior, thoughts and attitudes to meet expectations.
The Pygmalion effect can also be understood as aself-fulfilling prophecy, in which belief in something (whether that be positive or negative) that is going to happen in our lives, will happen since we unconsciously head towards that expectation, whether we like it or not.
Correspondingly, the expectations we have on others can also make that expectation a reality.
In effect, imagining an event will encourage it to happen.Álex Rovira
How does the Pygmalion effect work?
These days, we can use the Pygmalion effect in a positive way (negatively too, beware!) in many areas. After all, the Pygmalion effect applies to any setting where thoughts, beliefs and words are present: in the workplace, the classroom, parental education, social relations and even with oneself by directly influencing self-esteem.
The Pygmalion effect was empirically tested by researchers Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1964. The Pygmalion in the classroom study was an experiment carried out in a school. Elementary school children, chosen at random, were given a disguised, non existent test—the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition—, which was supposed to measure academic “blooming”or “spurting”, when in fact the test measured only some non verbal skills.
Teachers were told that students scoring high on the test would bloom academically during the upcoming academic year.
After 8 months, indeed, those pupils labeled as “late bloomers” showed a significantly greater gain in performance over children in the control group.
Therefore, Rosenthal’s and Jacobson’s results reinforced their hypothesis: by informing teachers about the “bloomers”, they subconsciously facilitated these students’ success due to the expectations best owed upon them.
According to Rosenthal, this is due to four key factors:
- Warmer socioemotional climate: teachers, unconsciously, convey this warmth through non-verbal cues such as a smile, a nod, voice tone, etc.
- More effort and demand: teachers will make a bigger effort to teach more material to high-expectancy students and demand more results from them.
- More opportunities: teachers will give children who are expected to bloom academically additional time to respond to questions; these opportunities are given both verbally and non verbally.
- More praise: if more is expected of a child, he/she gets praised more as well as more feedback.
The Pygmalion effect as double-edged sword: positive and negative effects
After learning about the power and importance of the Pygmalion effect, it is necessary to reflect upon the influence that it has on the lives of others and ourselves.
The Pygmalion effect works both ways: positively and negatively.
Our expectations about others influence our actions towards them.
In our daily lives, we behave in response to others’ expectations and beliefs: our partners, friends, bosses, parents, etc.
From a neurophysiological viewpoint, when someone trusts us and is our Pygmalion, the limbic system accelerates our speed of thought, thereby increasing our awareness and energy, and achieving greater effectiveness and efficiency.
Treat aman as he is, he will remain so. Treat a man the way he can be and ought to be, and he will become as he can and should be.Goethe
The Pygmalion effect in education
People in charge of children or students should pay extra attention to verbal and non-verbal language to avoid causing a negative Pygmalion effect.
During early childhood, children develop a sense of identity and self-concept, therefore any messages coming from authority figures (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) are crucial to the development of low or high self-esteem and a sense of personal effectiveness.
If a child is constantly hearing ”Don’t do that, you’re going to fall”, the child may end up falling. If a child is told “This exam is going to be very difficult, so if you have not learned well what has been explained this month, you will not pass”. This kid may fail the exam.
Labels also create a very negative effect on children’s self-concept. If a boy is labeled “the clumsy one” among his brothers, he will probably end up being clumsy.
In the same way, sending out positive messages of confidence in their abilities will give these children wings to soar.
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.Henry Ford
Here is a nice short video that will help you better understand the Pygmalion effect: It is known as the Pygmalion effect and works at any point in our lifetimes.
If you are interested in articles about social skills, you may also be interested in this post: How to Improve Your Social Skills: Social Skills Games