January 26

The Pygmalion Effect: How Expectations Shape Reality and Why What You Believe Holds the Key to What Happens

The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. 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 [Colonel Pickering], because you always treat me as a lady, and always will. George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion.  

Ovid’s Pygmalion

In Book 10 of his famous narrative poem, Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid narrates the story of Pygmalion—a poignant and timeless tale of love, transformation, and the power of artistic creation.

Pygmalion, a skilled sculptor and a king of Cyprus, is renowned for his craftsmanship. Disillusioned with mortal women due to their perceived flaws and shortcomings (yes, this part makes the story less palatable), Pygmalion decides to devote himself entirely to his art and sculpts an ivory statue of a woman. The statue is so exquisitely crafted and lifelike that it appears to transcend the boundaries between art and reality, causing Pygmalion to fall deeply in love with his creation.

Soon, Pygmalion longs for his creation to come to life—a wish the goddess of love and beauty ultimately grants. The ivory maiden soon transforms into a living, breathing woman whom Pygmalion names Galatea, and their union blossoms into a profound love story.

Ovid's rendition of the Pygmalion myth highlights the themes of idealized beauty, the transformative power of love, and the blurring of lines between reality and artistic creation. The tale has also inspired countless artists, writers, and thinkers throughout the centuries and, more recently, behavioral psychologists.

The Pygmalion Effect

Researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in the 1960s, through their groundbreaking study, "Pygmalion in the Classroom," explained The Pygmalion Effect. In this psychological phenomenon, higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.

In 1964, Dr. Rosenthal performed his “Pygmalion” experiment at a school. He told teachers the names of a group of students who, according to his tests, showed a lot of intellectual promise and were on the verge of “blooming intellectually” and a second group of students who didn’t exhibit such traits. In truth, however, both groups of students were chosen entirely randomly.

When tested at the end of the year, the “blossom” group gained an average of 27 I.Q. points, while the other group fared worse than before.

The study revealed that when teachers were led to believe that certain students had the potential for intellectual growth, those students tended to show greater improvement in their academic performance. Unwittingly, teachers tended to favor the “gifted” students by teaching them more challenging material and being engaged in their growth by providing more feedback.

This psychological phenomenon where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance has since been referred to as the “Pygmalion Effect.”

Smarter rats or biased testers?

The Pygmalion effect wasn’t restricted to the classroom. Dr. Rosenthal, for instance, even showed how expectations changed the result for a group of testers whose job was to measure how quickly rats could find their way out of a maze.

Two groups of testers were assigned to test the rats, with one group being told the rats were quick learners and the other being told the rats were slow, even though the rats in both groups were identical at the start.

Testers in the former group did find their rats outperforming those in the latter group. Simply by setting expectations upfront, the researchers were able to influence the behavior of testers, who, as it turned out, handled the quicker rats with greater care.

The Golem Effect

Converse to the Pygmalion Effect, the Golem Effect works the reverse way. It occurs when low expectations or negative beliefs about an individual lead to a decrease in their performance and capabilities. (The term "Golem" is derived from Jewish folklore, where it refers to a creature animated from inanimate matter, often clay or mud, brought to life through mystical means.)

The key takeaway from all of the above research is that expectations, whether positive or negative, have the power to and do shape reality.

What does the Pygmalion Effect mean for us?

The Pygmalion Effect serves as a powerful reminder of the profound impact that expectations can have on personal growth, and it extends beyond the classroom and into various aspects of life.

The research is clear: we are more likely to succeed and help others succeed in a culture of positive expectations and encouragement. The impact of the expectations we convey in our messages, whether spoken or expressed nonverbally, is often greater than we realize —You often become what you expect to become.

Whether in parenting, the workplace, or even professional settings (such as doctors' offices), positive expectations consistently results in better outcomes. This positive reinforcement creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the belief in one's potential becomes a driving force for actualizing that potential.

Feedback cycles

Here’s an example from a research study: men and women in late middle age underperformed on a standard memory test when told they were part of a study including people over 70. Knowing they were part of an older group with the unstated association between old age and forgetfulness was enough to cause them to underperform, even for those in their late 40s/early 50s.

The article quotes Dr. Hummert as saying:

The implication is that some of the things we say about ourselves in conversation — joking about ‘senior moments’ is a perfect example — these kinds of comments may, in fact, undermine our own memory at the time we’re saying them. And the fear is that it has a cumulative effect, that it becomes a negative feedback cycle.

For instance, as parents, we often assume (or project our own beliefs and insecurities) onto our kids in deciding what they can and can’t do. The same is true for how we stereotype ourselves in adulthood, saying things like, “I’m too old to start running” or “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean we all turn into Pollyannas. But just being mindful to question the biases that influence our thoughts and actions can help a long way in keeping us positive and growing.


Dr. Rosenthal later said this about his research:

The bottom line is that if we expect certain behaviors from people, we treat them differently, and that treatment is likely to affect their behavior.

The point is to be aware and not let our limiting beliefs turn into self-fulfilling prophecies because if there’s one thing we can be sure of, our subconscious works in ways we still don’t fathom, and we don’t want to give any more negative fodder than it already has.

So, let’s pause before we start buying slip-on shoes because we’re convinced we won’t be able to bend down to tie our shoelaces.

I do my best because I’m counting on you counting on me. MAYA ANGELOU

PS: As I was finishing writing this article last week, I saw this obituary of Dr. Rosenthal in the New York Times. Let’s take a moment to honor his life and thank people of science, like Dr. Rosenthal, who help us become aware of our own biases.



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