Pygmalion Effect

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The Pygmalion Effect is a fascinating psychological phenomenon that highlights the power of expectations and how they can influence other’s behavior and performance. This effect is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a king and sculptor who fell in love with the statue of a woman he sculpted out of ivory. Eventually, the statue came to life, fulfilling Pygmalion’s hopes and dreams for the piece of stone. In the realm of psychology, the Pygmalion Effect refers to the notion that people tend to live up to the expectations we place on them.

According to the Pygmalion effect, higher expectations lead to higher performance, while lower expectations result in lower performance. This concept suggests that when someone believes in us and expects us to succeed, we are more likely to work harder, overcome obstacles, and achieve our goals. On the other hand, in a contrasting phenomenon, according to the Golem effect, low expectations negatively impact our ability, we may internalize those beliefs and perform accordingly. Basically, according to these two theories “you get what you expect.”

Key Definition:

The Pygmalion Effect is a psychological term describing how our expectations of others create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Others tend to live up to the expectations we place on them.

History of the Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect in psychology is based on a classic 1965 study conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. In this study, Rosenthal and Jacobson identified a third of the students to teachers as “growth spurters.” They presented this information as a result of a new Harvard test designed to identify children with the greatest potential. In reality, the test was non existent and the children were identified at random.

Rosenthal and Jacobson hoped to determine whether or not a teacher’s positive expectations had an impact on the child’s learning. After 8 months, they retested the children to measure growth. they found the children identified as ‘growth spurters’ had demonstrated significantly more growth than the control group in the study. They published their findings, titling the article “Pygmalion in the Classroom” (1968).

Golem Effect

Jere E. Brophy hypothesized that positive expectations in the classroom were not as influential to a child’s growth as negative expectations (1983). Research on the Golem effect is not as plentiful. Generally, this is because of ethical concerns. Science can’t create scenarios that likely will harm a child. Research on the Golem effect is mostly studied through naturally occurring interactions in the work place (2011).

Brophy hypothesized that the low expectations created a disadvantageous learning environment. Accordingly, the deficient learning environment then impacted the child’s learning. Brophy listed eight concrete expressions that convey low expectation on students:

  • giving-up easily on low-expectation students
  • criticizing them more often for failure
  • praising them less often following success
  • praising inappropriately
  • neglecting to give them feedback any feedback following their responses
  • seating them in the back of the room
  • basically paying less attention to them or interacting with them less frequently
  • expressing less warmth to them or less interest in them as individuals (Chang, 2011).

Once a person is labeled, often unconsciously, we tend to process facts in a biased fashion to support our preconceived ideas. We engage in motivated reasoning to support our beliefs.

Applying the Pygmalion Effect

Researchers have conducted numerous studies to explore the Pygmalion Effect in various settings, such as education, workplace, and athletics. For instance, research in the field of education shows that when teachers hold positive expectations for their students, they provide them with additional support and encouragement, and consequently, the students are more likely to thrive academically. Similarly, managers who have high expectations of their employees and provide them with opportunities for growth and development often witness improved performance and job satisfaction.

Pygmalion Effect. A Psychology Fanatic Chart
Pygmalion Effect

Positivity and the Pygmalion Effect

It is important to recognize the Pygmalion Effect not only in our interactions with others but also in the way we perceive ourselves. If we constantly doubt our abilities and hold low expectations of what we can achieve (Golem effect), our beliefs can hinder our progress and prevent us from fulfilling our potential. In psychology, we refer to to this attitude as a negative attribution style. On the other hand, cultivating a positive mindset and setting high (but achievable) expectations can motivate healthy behaviors that reach those lofty expectations.

In conclusion, the Pygmalion Effect serves as a reminder of the profound impact that expectations can have on individuals and their performance. By fostering a belief in the potential of ourselves and others, we can unlock untapped abilities and achieve remarkable results. We also should mindfully examine social interactions where we project limiting beliefs onto others, catch our bias and improve our response.

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Babad, Elisha., Inbar, Jacinto, & Rosenthal, Robert (1982). Pygmalion, Galatea, and the Golem: Investigations of biased and unbiased teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(4), 459-474. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.74.4.459

Brophy, Jere (1983). Research on the self-fulfilling prophecy and teacher expectations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(5), 631-661. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.75.5.631

Chang, Jie (2011). A Case Study of the “Pygmalion Effect”: Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement. International Education Studies. DOI: 10.5539/ies.v4n1p198

Leung, Alex & Sy, Thomas (2018). I Am as Incompetent as the Prototypical Group Member: An Investigation of Naturally Occurring Golem Effects in Work Groups. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. DOI: 0.3389/fpsyg.2018.01581

R, Divya (2020). Pygmalion Effect: Its Application in Classroom. Online Journal of Neurology and Brain Disorders. DOI: 10.32474/ojnbd.2020.04.000185

Rosenthal, Robert (2005). Pygmalion revisited, revisited: On a loud and careless call for caution. Interchange, 3(1), 86-91. DOI: 10.1007/BF02145949

Rosenthal, Robert & Jacobson, Lenore (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20. DOI: 10.1007/BF02322211

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