High Expectations Make Us Perform Better: The Pygmalion Effect Explained

Psychology Nov 30, 2021

In a famous experiment, Professor Robert Rosenthal asked teachers to rate certain students as being "very bright" or "intellectually capable." The teachers were told that their ratings would be compared with the students' actual IQ scores. In reality, the children's IQs had been randomly selected and assigned before they took a test. After hearing about how well these kids performed at school, those who were labeled as 'bright' by their teacher scored higher on the tests than those who were labeled as 'not so bright.'

Martin Seligman conducted an experiment where he gave two groups of students different expectations about their intelligence. One group was told that they were intelligent while the other group was told that they would need to work hard if they wanted to succeed. The first group did much better on tests than the second group of students, proving that the Pygmalion effect does indeed happen!

Positive expectations, according to research, have a positive impact on performance. Watch what happens if you start modeling excellence, celebrating small victories, and refusing to accept failure.



What is the Pygmalion effect?

The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon in which people perform better when someone has high expectations for them. This is because the person with higher expectations sets specific goals for themselves, and they are more likely to work hard towards achieving those goals.

It is possible to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Low expectations create a negative atmosphere, which leads to poor performance. High expectations, on the other hand, create a positive and encouraging environment in which high performance can be achieved.

Robert Rosenthal discovered the Pygmalion effect in his 1964 study. The Rosenthal Effect is the name given to the discovery by Rosenthal, who named it after the mythological Greek sculpture Pygmalion.

In the story told by the Roman poet Ovid, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with the ivory statue of a woman he created, and the gods bring her to life for him to marry.

His expectations aided in the reanimation of the statue, which is consistent with the Pygmalion effect. i.e. that expectations can alter reality.

Many years later, George Bernard Shaw borrowed the theme for his play Pygmalion, which later became the musical 'My Fair Lady'.

In My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins takes on the job of transforming a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle. He falls in love with her in the process of teaching her 'proper English'.

How the Pygmalion effect impacts us

Although the Pygmalion effect is mostly unconscious, it demonstrates how others' expectations can have a significant impact on our performance. When someone has high expectations of us, we strive to live up to them.

If someone we respect or want to impress, such as a teacher or boss, believes we will succeed, their opinion of us can influence our own. Positive expectations enable us to take the steps necessary to meet those lofty goals. Because we believe we can succeed, we are more likely to push ourselves harder.

Because pre-existing beliefs lead to more effort being put in by both the person with the expectations and the person who is being expected from, the Pygmalion effect acts as a prophecy, increasing the likelihood of success.

Unintended consequences

Although the Pygmalion effect is beneficial to performance, it requires positive expectations. That means people who don't believe others have high expectations of them may suffer. The Pygmalion effect shows that stereotypes can be harmful.

Someone's high expectations for our performance affect both our and their actions. For example, a teacher who believes a student is smart and will succeed may pay more attention, give more detailed feedback, and keep challenging them. They may not treat other students equally, causing some to fall behind while others thrive.

This is because the Pygmalion effect only works on people we already expect a lot from. It's especially harmful to young children who are still forming their self-concept based on others' opinions. Influential people must therefore manage and mediate their expectations.

Why it matters

It suggests that first impressions matter, for example. A good reputation with your boss or superior means they will expect a lot from you, which may lead to more support in achieving your goals. Rosenthal discovered that teachers gave more attention and encouragement to students who were labeled as bloomers.

If we are the ones who can influence others' expectations, we should try to maintain and express positive expectations to inspire others to meet them. However, we must not let our expectations of certain individuals overshadow those of others who may have as much to offer.

How does it work?

  1. The Pygmalion effect, according to Rosenthal, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This appears to work in a circular pattern:
  2. People's expectations and beliefs influence their behavior toward others.
  3. Those actions have an impact on other people's beliefs and expectations about themselves.
  4. Other people's performance is influenced by those beliefs.
  5. Others' initial beliefs and expectations are confirmed.
  6. This brings us back to 1, where the actions begin to reinforce each other.

How to use it

The Pygmalion Effect goes beyond the classroom. It extends to business and other leadership settings. This is why the Pygmalion effect is so important in business and getting the best out of employees and students.

1. Know expectations

We expect others to behave in certain ways. We can adapt our thoughts and actions if we first acknowledge them.

Noticing when our expectations differ is critical. If we are aware, we can avoid negative actions. Instead of focusing on flaws, we can focus on strengths and potential.

We can recognize when our expectations lead to negative actions. For example, we may yell at someone with low expectations. It is important to acknowledge such instances and try to prevent a recurrence.

2. Find Positive Traits

We all have low expectations of others at times. No matter who it is. They may appear inept. So we shouldn't expect too much from them, which can affect our actions.

Positive traits can help raise expectations if identified and communicated. These, in turn, can inspire others to reach previously unimagined heights.

Everyone from famous soccer players to baseball players to actors has surpassed expectations. We must identify traits that we may overlook.

3. Set Goals

We feel accomplished when we achieve a goal. Employees can feel empowered to achieve ambitious goals. When challenged, they can not only meet but exceed your expectations.

If we give them tasks that we think are beyond their capabilities and encourage them, they will give it their all. We often go above and beyond to meet high expectations.

4. Positive Words

Belittling someone's abilities won't help. β€˜I'm not sure you can do this or β€˜Can you try' can be interpreted negatively. These words imply distrust and low expectations.

We can set positive expectations for others by complimenting and recognizing their strengths. This can then influence our actions. Focusing on their strengths raises our expectations of them. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

5. Feedback

It's critical to provide actionable feedback to students, employees, and others. The Pygmalion effect has a flaw in that it ignores those with low expectations. We may not both provide feedback because β€˜it is pointless' or β€˜they won't be able to do anything.

Not worrying about what-ifs or whether the feedback is useful, it's important to at least try it. Give the person a chance to improve, develop, and prove you wrong.

Employee reviews, training, or one-on-one feedback are examples.



Pygmalion Effects Examples

Baseball is a more realistic example.

For example, Tim, the baseball coach, recruits Ryan and Sam. Ryan reminds the coach of an 80s baseball idol. So he has high hopes for him. Sam, on the other hand, is a skinny kid who can't seem to score runs. His expectations of him are low. Tim is spending more time helping Ryan with his technique while Sam sits in the corner. Ryan is always praising Ryan while Sam is ignored. Ryan seems to be the β€˜golden boy. Ryan hits his first home run of the season, winning the team the game. Sam, on the other hand, rushed out of fear and self-doubt.

Group effects

While Rosenthal and Jacobson found a performance gap between intellectual bloomers and non-bloomers, the Pygmalion effect may have occurred because teachers viewed the intellectual bloomers as superior.

Positive expectations led to improved performance, according to organizational psychologist Dr. Dov Eden. So he created a study with a control group completely separate from the high-expectation group.

Eden used platoons in the IDF because each platoon has its platoon leader. The trainees were tested in four areas: theory, practice, fitness, and target shooting. The Pygmalion effect is most pronounced in the first two areas, taught by platoon leaders.

This meant that some platoon leaders could expect unusual results from their trainees. The control group platoon leaders were not told anything about their trainees' potential. Every two weeks, the examiners met with platoon leaders. Examiners asked high-potential leaders how their potential manifested itself, to refresh expectancy induction. After ten weeks, tests were repeated.

The results showed that the high-expectation groups outperformed the control groups. The difference was most pronounced in platoon leader-taught theoretical and practical specialty areas.

Eden concluded from these findings that the Pygmalion effect affects whole groups, not just individuals and that positive expectations lead to improved performance.

Eden's study also shows that the Pygmalion effect occurs even if individuals are unaware of their superior's expectations. This suggests that changing a leader's behavior can improve performance.

Drug rehab impact

Most examples and research on the Pygmalion effect focus on the workplace or school. Professor Hakan Jenner, an expert on youth substance abuse, believes it may also affect treatment because therapists have hopes for their patients' success.

To label and categorize clients is common, Jenner says. They may need to assess their patients' motivation or suitability for the treatment program. Jenner uses a literature review to show that the Pygmalion effect may influence treatment because therapists often see motivation or willpower as the main factor determining patient success.

Jenner's previous research found that prior commitment to enroll in an alcohol addiction program had little impact on patient retention. Jenner concluded that treatment factors influence treatment success more. According to Jenner, one of Rosenthal's four factors, climate, is the main propagator of the Pygmalion effect. Patients are more likely to succeed in their treatment staff is positive and cooperative.

Jenner concluded from his research that high therapist expectations and motivation lead to the Pygmalion effect.

Conclusion

Understanding how expectations affect our behavior and subsequent outcomes is critical to properly mediating expectations for the best possible outcomes.

This effect is significant because it has the potential to influence our actions and create a self-fulfilling cycle of positive reinforcement. It is critical to understand how our beliefs can influence our actions to get the most out of others, whether they are employees, colleagues, or anyone else. The Pygmalion effect can lead to unfair treatment. We must be careful not to favor only a few students or employees, as this can demotivate and discourage others. Through an understanding of such, we can work to develop those for whom we may have low expectations rather than working to keep them from developing at all.

Useful resources

Boost Your EQ: How to Improve Emotional Intelligence

The Abilene Paradox: Explained

"Pygmalion" in the Classroom

Further Reading :

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

Blink: The power of thinking without thinking

Thinking, Fast and Slow

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