The Pygmalion Effect

By Ayesh Perera, published April 06, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Definition

  • The Pygmalion effect, also known as the Rosenthal effect, denotes a psychological phenomenon wherein high expectations induce improvements in performance in a certain field (Mitchell & Daniels, 2003).
  • “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)
  • It is a positive form of self-fulfilling prophecy wherein the objects [the targeted individuals] of projections internalize the optimistic labels they receive and succeed to conform to those labels. This implies that sanguine expectations on a leader’s part could lead to improved performance by followers.

History of the Pygmalion Effect

Robert Rosenthal discovered the Pygmalion effect in a groundbreaking study in 1964. In introducing the concept in their book titled ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom,’ Rosenthal and his colleague Lenore Jacobson drew on the Greek myth of Pygmalion in ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

Pygmalion in the story, was a sculptor from Cyprus who ended up falling in love with an ivory statue of a woman he had made (Ovid, 2008). Enamored by the statue’s beauty, he begs the gods for a wife resembling its likeness. The gods respond by granting Pygmalion’s request. The statue subsequently comes to life.

Centuries later, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion would convey the point as well. In it, Liza explains: “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated” (Shaw, 1912).

She further points out: “I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will” (Shaw, 1912).

Pygmalion Effect Experiment

Robert Rosenthal subscribed to the hypothesis that expectations can engender self-fulfilling prophecies by inducing corresponding performance. He chose an elementary school in California for his study, and administered an IQ examination to each student (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

Having tested all the childrens IQ, the researchers selected a sample of children at random, and informed the teachers that these were children of high academic potential.

Following the test, the teachers were given the names of the ‘intellectual bloomers,’ but no scores were disclosed. At the end of the school year, all the students retook the test. While the overall scores had risen, the purported ‘intellectual bloomers’ had improved the most.

The evidence seemed to indicate that the teachers’ expectations constituted a contributory variable in the student outcomes, especially in the youngest students (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). The teachers had bestowed more attention on the ‘intellectual bloomers.’

Though with subtlety, the teachers had treated these students differently, providing in-depth feedback etc. Rosenthal concluded that even inconspicuous factors such as attitude and mood could impact students.

It bears noting however, that this experiment was not without drawbacks. The efficacy and reliability of IQ testing have been challenged even by those supporting its administration for limited purposes. Moreover, some people can be more susceptible to labeling effects than others.

Highly individualistic persons, for instance, may not really care much about what others think or expect of them. Finally, the experiment’s attempt to artificially control the student environment could have compromised the outcomes and the conclusions derived therefrom.

How the Pygmalion Effect works

The Pygmalion Effect Loop

The operation of the Pygmalion effect, similar to that of self-fulfilling prophecy, can be understood as progressing through 4 stages in a cyclical pattern:

  1. Others’ beliefs about us shape their conduct toward us.
  2. Their conduct toward us influences our beliefs about ourselves.
  3. These beliefs in turn, impact our actions toward others.
  4. Our actions toward others influence their beliefs about us, thereby returning us to the initial stage.

A central tenet of the Pygmalion effect is that others’ expectations of us can eventually influence our behavior in a significant way.

In other words, low expectations could ultimately lead to poor performance while optimistic expectations would likely improve performance.

Examples

Everyday life abounds with readily observable instances of the Pygmalion effect. The manager of an insurance agency, for example, might decide to categorize various sales agents based upon their past performance. She might label them as excellent, average, and below-average individuals, and give each group different targets to accomplish.

The excellent group, by virtue of their label would receive not just a boost to their confidence, but also a greater challenge to meet. This, in turn, would significantly influence their conduct.

They would strive to improve their productivity and device innovative methods to accomplish this goal. Succeeding eventually would reinforce the label of excellence attached to them.

Thus, the optimistic expectations projected upon them would likely engender a virtuous cycle conducive to high performance.

Conversely, those for whom lower goals are set, do not have the same incentives to perform like their counterparts from whom much is expected. Consequently, unsurprisingly, many of these average and below-average sales agents would likely produce, at best, mediocre results.

How to use the Pygmalion Effect

The expectations of those occupying positions of authority in various fields, from the business world to the battlefield, can readily impact the performance of their subordinates.

As such, finding means to leverage this reality to optimize the work done by those whom one can influence could be immensely beneficial. Following are some ways to use this effect:

1. Cultivate awareness

Before altering one’s actions, knowing how they can impact others is essential. As such, becoming aware of how one’s spoken words and body language convey potent messages to one’s subordinates is a prerequisite.

Moreover, knowing the range of receptivity among, and the diversity of interpretations the same message may elicit from, various individuals within a group can significantly aid a leader.

2. Identify strengths and weaknesses

Praising meritorious conduct often constitute a powerful impetus for the continuation of laudable behavior. This is especially true for persons with a propensity to please their superiors.

Moreover, identifying weaknesses, and proposing plans for salutary amendment in a fashion that conveys confidence is no less important.

When improvement is required, both providing critical feedback, and affirming the person’s capacity to improve can play a vital role in engendering positive change.

3. Setting challenges

Creating high yet realistic goals can convey the expectation that such objectives could be met by the pertinent individuals.

The training of Olympic athletes and special forces soldiers amply demonstrate how difficult goals can encourage not just improvement but peak performance by translating high expectations into crucial behavioral changes.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, April 06). The Pygmalion Effect. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/pygmalion-effect.html

APA Style References

Mitchell, T. R., & Daniels, D. (2003). Observations and commentary on recent research in work motivation. Motivation and work behavior7(1), 225-54.

Raudenbush, S. W. (1984). Magnitude of teacher expectancy effects on pupil IQ as a function of the credibility of expectancy induction: A synthesis of findings from 18 experiments. Journal of Educational psychology, 76(1), 85.

Rosenthal, R., & Babad, E. Y. (1985). Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational leadership43(1), 36-39.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20.

Rosenthal, R., & Rubin, D. B. (1978). Interpersonal expectancy effects: The first 345 studies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(3), 377-386.

Shaw, George Bernard (1912). “Pygmalion.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3825/3825-h/3825-h.htm.