The Pygmalion Effect – The performance hack you’ve never heard of

Updated on 19th December, 2022

Definition of The Pygmalion Effect

Imagine two possible scenarios that occur when you have agreed to take on a large project at work that none of your coworkers or superiors want to touch. In one scenario, your colleagues constantly slate you, stating that you have bitten off more than you can chew and will ultimately end up failing the project. To make matters worse, your boss constantly looks down on you, demonstrating in all but words that he expects you to mess up this project and go back to completing your everyday mundane tasks. Conversely, in the other scenario, you have been strongly encouraged to take on this project.

Everyone in the workplace believes that you will be the one to complete it and bring a sense of achievement to the company. Every day at work, your superior comes to your office to give you words of support, reminding you that he has no doubt in his mind that you will succeed. When we compare both scenarios, which one do you think will make you most likely to succeed in the project? The first scenario (i.e., scenario A) or the second (i.e., scenario B)?

Expectations can make you climb mountains
Expectations can make you climb mountains

Science shows that a person in scenario B will have a much higher chance of succeeding at his or her task than a person in scenario A. Essentially, the driving factors that mediate the chances of success are the strong beliefs and high expectations that are only received in scenario B as opposed to scenario A. This is called the Pygmalion Effect, which was named after the story of an ancient Greek sculptor who fell in love with a statue he created. He was so in love with this statue that he prayed to the god Aphrodite to bring her to life, and because of his genuine love and unwavering expectations, she fulfilled his wish. In scientific literature, this effect describes instances where people’s high expectations of us can improve our behavior and subsequent performance in a given area, such as the example above about the work project.

Put simply, the Pygmalion Effect demonstrates that people perform better when more is expected of them. We see this effect enact its beauty in many environments aside from the workplace, such as school and within the family. Basically, the Pygmalion Effect may emerge in any instance where someone receives support and strong expectations to succeed in a given task.

What is the Pygmalion Effect?

The Pygmalion effect is interesting because it shows how much influence external expectations of ourselves can influence how we behave and perform. It could almost be compared to an example of a “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” where someone’s prediction comes true because of their predetermined belief that it would come true. Confusing, isn’t it?

Parents' expectations help mould a child's future
Parents' expectations help mould a child's future

Luckily, scientists who have studied the Pygmalion Effect have outlined four stages that demonstrate how external expectations can greatly impact how we act. These stages are:

1. The belief that others have about us changes how they behave around us (e.g., people who believe we will succeed will show more support, whereas people who believe we will fail will express less supportive behaviors.

2. Their new behavior influences our own beliefs about ourselves (e.g., when we receive supportive behaviors, we tend to reap beneficial effects and vice versa).

3. Our newly developed beliefs impact our actions and behaviors towards ourselves and others.

4. Those actions reinforce the belief of others in us, thereby returning us to the initial stage of the cycle.

The effect that can make you fly or fall
The effect that can make you fly or fall

The main takeaway from this four-stage model is that the Pygmalion Effect shows that others’ expectations of us have the potential to significantly influence our behavior, where positive expectations will lead to beneficial results, but negative expectations will lead to detrimental results. This is why your family likely has such a substantial impact on the way you behave in life. If you’re mother or father are constantly supporting you and expressing their belief in you, you unconsciously try to make them proud and fulfill their expectations. This is why the Pygmalion Effect is so important, as it implies that there is a way for all of us to provide a positive impact on others by setting healthy beliefs and motivating others to succeed.

History of the Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect also goes under the name of the Rosenthal Effect, which refers to one of the researchers that originally discovered the phenomenon. In 1986, Robert Rosenthal (1917-2007) and his research partner Lenore Jacobson (1922-Present) developed an experiment to investigate whether teachers’ expectations of their students would influence their performance in school.

This experiment was based on the hypothesis that, when informed about how the teachers expected them to succeed in class, the students would internalize this information leading to better performance.

To test this, Rosenthal and Jacobson gave elementary school students two sets of IQ tests at the beginning and the end of the school year to predict which students would “intellectually bloom” throughout the year. To ensure that they had accurate results, Rosenthal and Jacobson picked students out randomly whom they labeled as intellectual bloomers even though their IQ results did not indicate the fact.

At the end of the year, all of the students were given the second IQ test to complete, and while most students performed relatively better on this second test, those who received the intellectual bloomer label performed exceptionally better than those who did not. From this study, the Pygmalion Effect was born and demonstrated that high expectations can influence the behavior of others.

Thought Experiment – Have I been Pygmalionned? Let’s see if we have ever been affected by the Pygmalion Effect ourselves! Was there ever a time when someone’s high expectations for you made you behave in a way that you had to succeed? This could be in a sports game, school exam, or even at your workplace when you were given an important task to complete.

The effect that helps you win the race
The effect that helps you win the race

Case Examples of the Pygmalion Effect

Case 1: The Pygmalion Effect is perfectly illustrated in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion which was created in 1916. The play shows how a Professor (i.e., Professor Higgins) transforms a Cockney girl (i.e., lower middle class) from London called Eliza Doolittle into a woman who would resemble a noble duchess. Higgins’ aim was a nefarious one, as he intended to use Eliza’s new image as a tool to enhance his own status in London’s social scene. Before undertaking this project, Eliza was vulgar, fiery, and possessed a highly erratic temper which she frequently aimed toward Professor Higgins. She questions everything he did but eventually understands that he is doing his best to teach her and believes she can turn into the woman he envisaged.

The Pygmalion Effect in animals
The Pygmalion Effect in animals

With these expectations, Eliza slowly begins to adopt the qualities and traits of an upper-class woman, but during her evolution, she gains emotional independence and refuses to become Higgins’ experiment. Thus, she bloomed into the person that she was expected to become, showing us how the Pygmalion Effect has the potential to enact change for the better. In the play, Eliza expresses a verse that relates to how the Pygmalion Effect works:

“The difference between a flower girl and a lady is not in the way she acts, but in the ways she is treated.”

- Eliza Doolittle

When expectations lead to excellence
When expectations lead to excellence

Case 2: Another case of the Pygmalion Effect can also be seen in the Pakistani Airforce, which conducted a behavioral experiment to see if they could use the effect to improve the performance of their trainees using their leaders’ positive expectations. The experiment consisted of 150 trainees undergoing military training and assigned leaders who would express supportive or neutral behaviors. When the results were collected after the training course was terminated, the study demonstrated that when the leaders were supportive, collaborative, and possessed positive expectations for their subordinates, the trainees reported higher levels of self-belief, leading to better performance.

This is another example of how the Pygmalion Effect works within military settings where positive expectations from a person with authority can strongly influence the behavior of a person that looks up to them.

Case 3: One of the weirdest cases of the Pygmalion Effect is from an experiment conducted by Rosenthal in 1963, when he attempted to see if the effect would occur in animals. Rosenthal split his students into two separate groups and handed them some rats. He informed one group that the rats they received were extremely skilled maze navigators and would be able to finish a maze without any difficulty. In the other group, Rosenthal said that the rats they received were unskilled and would have trouble completing most mazes.

By doing this, each group would set different expectations for their rats and treat them differently. The first group showed sympathy, encouragement, and warmth towards their rodents and held high expectations for their performance, whereas the other group was colder and doubted their rats’ abilities. As predicted, the rats who received positive expectations performed much better than those who did not.

A Beautiful Quote

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur”

- Robert Rosenthal

Questions and Answers

Can you use the Pygmalion Effect to change yourself for the better?

Yes, just as the Pygmalion effect would impact you if somebody believed in your capabilities, similarly, you can boost your ability by believing in yourself. Thinking positively about yourself and your abilities affects your performance, leading to a better outcome. This lesson also teaches us to set high goals and have high expectations of ourselves.

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