Pygmalion effect

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The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform.[1] The effect is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved.

A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance;[1] both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy. By the Pygmalion effect, people internalize their positive labels, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly. The idea behind the Pygmalion effect is that increasing the leader's expectation of the follower's performance will result in better follower performance. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regard to education and social class.

Studies of the Pygmalion effect have been difficult to conduct. Results show a positive correlation between leader expectation and follower performance, but it is argued that the studies are done in an unnatural, manipulated setting. Scientists argue that the perceptions a leader has of a follower cause the Pygmalion effect. The leader's expectations are influenced by their perception of the situation or the followers themselves. Perception and expectation may possibly be found in a similar part in the brain.[2]

Rosenthal–Jacobson study[edit]

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson's study showed that, if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then the children's performance was enhanced. This study supported the hypothesis that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectations of others, called the observer-expectancy effect. Rosenthal argued that biased expectancies could affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies.[3][4]

All students in a single California elementary school were given a disguised IQ test at the beginning of the study. These scores were not disclosed to teachers. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20% of the school chosen at random) could be expected to be "spurters" that year, doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates. The spurters' names were made known to the teachers. At the end of the study, all students were again tested with the same IQ-test used at the beginning of the study. All six grades in both experimental and control groups showed a mean gain in IQ from before the test to after the test. However, First and Second Graders showed statistically significant gains favoring the experimental group of "spurters". This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations, particularly for the youngest children, can influence student achievement. Rosenthal believed that even attitude or mood could positively affect the students when the teacher was made aware of the "spurters". The teacher may pay closer attention to and even treat the child differently in times of difficulty. Jane Elliott incorporated this into her study of the classroom when racially profiling her children when creating her responses to her "inferior" or "superior" children.[5][6]

Rosenthal predicted that elementary school teachers may subconsciously behave in ways that facilitate and encourage the students' success. When finished, Rosenthal theorized that future studies could be implemented to find teachers who would encourage their students naturally without changing their teaching methods. The prior research that motivated this study was done in 1911 by psychologists regarding the case of Clever Hans, a horse that gained notoriety because it was supposed to be able to read, spell, and solve math problems by using its hoof to answer. Many skeptics suggested that questioners and observers were unintentionally signaling Clever Hans. For instance, whenever Clever Hans was asked a question the observers' demeanor usually elicited a certain behavior from the subject that in turn confirmed their expectations. For example, Clever Hans would be given a math problem to solve, and the audience would get very tense the closer he tapped his foot to the right number, thus giving Hans the clue he needed to tap the correct number of times.

A major limitation of this experiment was its inability to be replicated well. "Most studies using product measures found no expectancy advantage for the experimental group, but most studies using process measures did show teachers to be treating the experimental group more favorably or appropriately than they were treating the control group...because teachers did not adopt the expectations that the experimenters were attempting to induce, and/or because the teachers were aware of the nature of the experiment."[7]

Students' views of teachers[edit]

Teachers are also affected by the children in the classroom. Teachers reflect what is projected onto them by their students. An experiment done by Jenkins and Deno (1969) submitted teachers to a classroom of children who had either been told to be attentive, or unattentive, to the teachers' lecture. They found that teachers who were in the attentive condition would rate their teaching skills as higher. Similar findings by Herrell (1971) stated that when a teacher was preconditioned to classrooms as warm or cold, the teacher would start to gravitate towards their precondition. To further this concept, Klein (1971) did the same kind of study involving teachers still unaware of any precondition to the classroom but the class was full of confederates who were instructed to act differently during periods over the course of the lecture. Though "Klein reported that there was little difference between students behaviors in the natural and the positive conditions."[8] In a more observational study designed to remove the likes of the Hawthorne effect, Oppenlander (1969) studied the top and bottom 20% of students in the sixth grade from a school that tracks and organizes its students under such criteria.[8]

Applications to racism[edit]

According to one often-cited but controversial non-scientific study by Jane Elliott, the Pygmalion effect can play a role in racial expectations and behavior. Elliott was an American teacher and anti-racism activist who devised an exercise to determine the effects of expectations and discrimination upon children. She used differences in eye color to distinguish between perceptions and expectations of "inferior" and "superior". In this exercise, one group was given preference and regarded as "superior" in intelligence and learning ability because of their eye color, while the other group was intentionally associated with inferiority. On the second day of the experiment, the groups were completely reversed, with those previously considered inferior one day being regarded as superior the next.

Elliott gave math tests to both groups on each day of the experiment. The students scored low on the day they were racially "inferior" and high on the day they were considered racially "superior".[6]

She had taken on students deemed as inferior due to their lack of ability to read well and put them through her experiment. Almost half of the class went on after high school to higher schooling; this was considered impressive for their status when she first did the study. The children of the study felt more in control when it came to discrimination. They said the agony was worth the perspective they had on life. One even stated that when he sees discrimination he wishes he could tell the person of his experience and would urge the person to look at their lives through their eyes. They realized that what was considered normal or accepted was not always the right thing.[9]

Elliott found that four students in particular were distinctly affected by this experiment. These students had advanced years past their age level when tested by the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT). Elliot asked one why this was, and the student responded with: "I found out I was as good as you said I was. You told me I could do anything, and I can. I'm smart!"[citation needed]

Elliott has done the same non-scientific experiment with adults in workshops. The results are similar to those of the children in her classroom.[citation needed]

Chen and Bargh study[edit]

Chen and Bargh did an automatic behavioral confirmation study in 1997. Participants were subliminally exposed to African American or Caucasian faces. They were then instructed to play a game of "Catch Phrase" with another participant who was not subliminally exposed to any faces. Both the primed and non-primed participants acted more hostile when the primed participants were subliminally primed with black rather than white faces. Because the participant was primed with a stereotypical hostile face, they perceived the other participant as hostile and treated them as such.[10] This relates in reverse to the Pygmalion effect. Because the stereotype allowed for a negative perception, one participant had a negative expectation of the other.

Pygmalion in the workplace[edit]

Leader expectations of the employee may alter leader behavior. This behavior that is expressed toward an employee can affect the behaviors of the employee in favor of the leader's expectations.[11] The more an employee is engaged in learning activities, the higher the expectation is from the leader. In turn, the employee participates in more learning behavior. Leaders will show more leader behaviors such as leader-member exchange (trust, respect, obligation, etc.), setting specific goals, and allowing for more learning opportunities for employees, and giving employees feedback. These factors were brought about by Rosenthal's model of the Pygmalion effect.[11]


  • James Rhem, executive editor for the online National Teaching and Learning Forum, commented:[12]

"When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways." "How we believe the world is and what we honestly think it can become have powerful effects on how things will turn out."

  • "When people say you're dumb, you feel dumb, you act dumb" "But when you're on top and you're told you can do no wrong, you can't. You have the classroom in the palm of your hand, and you go" A student recounting his experiences in Jane Elliott's classroom.[6]
  • "Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right." – Henry Ford[13]
  • In 2004, US President George W. Bush referred to "the soft bigotry of low expectations" as one of the challenges faced by disadvantaged and minority students.
  • "Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act." Howard Zinn[14]
  • "I think I can! I think I can!" The Little Blue Engine[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mitchell, Terence R.; Daniels, Denise (2003). "Motivation". In Walter C. Borman, Daniel R. Ilgen, Richard J. Klimoski. Handbook of Psychology (volume 12). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 229. ISBN 0-471-38408-9. 
  2. ^ Whiteley, P., Sy, T., & Johnson, S. (2012). "Leaders' conceptions of followers: Implications for naturally occurring pygmalion effects". The Leadership Quarterly, 23(5), 822-834. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2012.03.006 Referred to as leaders' implicit followership theories (or LIFTs)
  3. ^ Rosenthal, R.; Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the Classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 
  4. ^ Rosenthal, Robert; Jacobson, Lenore (1992). Pygmalion in the classroom (Expanded ed.). New York: Irvington. 
  5. ^ Rosenthal & Jacobson, pp. 61–75
  6. ^ a b c Peters, Williams (1971). A Class Divided. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-345-02778-7. 
  7. ^ Good, Jere E. Brophy, Thomas L. (1974). Teacher-student relationships: causes and consequences. London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. p. 73. ISBN 0-03-085749-X. 
  8. ^ a b Good, Jere E. Brophy, Thomas L. (1974). Teacher-student relationships: causes and consequences. London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 276–277. ISBN 0-03-085749-X. 
  9. ^ Clark, William Peters; with a foreword by Kenneth B. (1987). A class divided: then and now (expanded ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03666-3. 
  10. ^ Chen, M., & Bargh, J. (1997). "Nonconscious behavioral confirmation processes: The self-fulfilling consequences of automatic stereotype activation". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(5), 541-560. doi: 10.1006/jesp.1997.1329
  11. ^ a b Bezuijen, X., van den Berg, P., van Dam, K., & Thierry, H. (2009). "Pygmalion and employee learning: The role of leader behaviors". Journal of Management, 35(5), 1248-1267. doi: 10.1177/0149206308329966
  12. ^ "Pygmalion In The Classroom". Retrieved 18 Oct 2010. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Zinn, Howard (1994). You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0807071274. 
  15. ^ Retold by Watty Piper, and illustrated by George and Doris Hauman. The Little Engine That Could (abridged ed.). New York, N.Y.: Platt & Munk. ISBN 978-0448463599. 

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