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Pygmalion Effect: Expect the Expected

Introduction

The local newspapers have been running stories all week about Karina’s upcoming swim meet, predicting that she will blow the competition out of the water and win handily. Karina’s coach doesn’t want to put too much pressure on her and decides that the best strategy is to push the whole team to work harder in practice. The coach keeps Karina for five minutes after practice each day to offer words of encouragement to her star swimmer before the big meet. Competition day finally comes and Karina wins the gold! 

Explanation

Her coach tried to treat all the swimmers the same in practice, but her tiny bit of special attention to Karina may have been enough to propel her to victory. This special treatment, as small as it was, instilled in Karina the expectation that she must put out her best performance. When people improve their performance because big things are expected of them, it’s known as the Pygmalion effect.

Definition: Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon where high expectations of someone lead to their improved performance. Conversely, low expectations lead to worse performance.

The Experiment

The name Pygmalion refers to a Greek myth about a talented sculptor. As the story goes, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his creations - an ivory statue of a woman. Thanks to some divine intervention, his statue came to life and he later married her. His expectations became reality.

The Pygmalion effect was first noted by psychologist Robert Rosenthal and elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson in a 1965 study called “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” Researchers told teachers that a select group of their elementary school students had a high potential for exceeding their expected academic success based on an intelligence test. However, the results of the intelligence test were not disclosed to teachers, and the “growth-spurters,” as they were called, were selected at random. Rosenthal and Jacobson predicted that teachers might subconsciously favor the students who were expected to overachieve, perhaps by paying closer attention to their work or offering more help when they struggled with an assignment. The study found that the randomly selected “growth-spurters” did, in fact, perform better than the other students, despite there being no statistical difference in their initial intelligence scores.

The Pygmalion effect is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person expects or predicts an outcome and subconsciously aligns their behaviors to meet that expected outcome, simply because they believe that it has to come true. The teachers in the “Pygmalion in the Classroom'' study believed that certain students would perform better and inadvertently willed this outcome into existence with their teaching strategies. The Pygmalion effect also works in the reverse direction. If the teachers were told that a cohort of students would underperform, they likely would have subconsciously devoted less attention to these students, causing these students’ achievement to decrease.

Applying It

The Pygmalion effect is present in various aspects of life. As discussed previously, the expectations of coaches and teachers influence athletic and academic performances. The effect is seen in the workplace, too. Bosses sometimes subliminally impact their employees’ performance based on whether they believe they will be good or bad at their job. 

An important note about the Pygmalion effect is that it works in both directions. Just as people in leadership positions hold expectations of the people below them, athletes, students, and employees expect certain things of their superiors. Employees who are unhappy with their bosses’ leadership often devote less energy to their job than they would if they were content with their bosses. The opposite is true, too. Employees who like their bosses tend to be more devoted to their job and perform better. It is important, then, for everyone to appropriately manage their expectations of others so that they do not fall into a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Think Further

  1. What should you do if you believe the Pygmalion effect is impacting your classmates’ and your learning?
  2. What are some strategies for turning a negative self-fulfilling prophecy into a positive one?
  3. What are some examples of the Pygmalion effect that you have seen in your life?

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Learn More

  1. “Pygmalion in Management.” Harvard Business Review, January 1, 2003. https://hbr.org/2003/01/pygmalion-in-management. 
  2. “The Pygmalion Effect [2019 APA PsycShorts Winner] – YouTube,” March 22, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvWvViI43Ig. 
  3. Farnam Street. “The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right,” May 21, 2018. https://fs.blog/2018/05/pygmalion-effect/.
  4. Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The urban review, 3(1), 16-20. https://uploads-ssl.webflow.com/59faaf5b01b9500001e95457/5bc54cd6eb16de0ec3199a67_Rosenthal%2C%20R.%2C%20%26%20Jacobson%2C%20L.%201968.pdf.