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What is the Pygmalion Effect?

By K. Willis
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The “Pygmalion effect,” also sometimes known as the “Rosenthal effect” for the psychologist credited with discovering it, is a theory teaching that people will act or behave in the way that others expect them to. It is very similar to the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The effect has both positive and negative outcomes — a person expected by his or her superiors to succeed will, but the opposite is also usually true. Most of the time, these expectations are not openly discussed. They are communicated passively through things like word choice or body language. The effect is most commonly discussed in terms of education and the workplace, but can also take hold in individuals.

Origins in Mythology and Literature

The effect and subsequent psychological teaching has its origins in Greek mythology. According to popular myth, Pygmalion was a prince of Cyprus and a sculptor who created and fell in love with an ivory statue of his ideal woman. He pleaded with the goddess Venus to give life to his creation, and she obliged. Pygmalion married the resulting woman and they had a perfect life together. He had expected the statue to be perfect in every way, and she fulfilled his expectations when she was brought to life.

English playwright George Bernard Shaw expanded on this idea in his popular play Pygmalion, which served as the inspiration for the perhaps better known My Fair Lady. In these dramas, a genteel professor transforms a low-class, Cockney woman into a lady fit for society primarily by believing in her and expecting the best of her.

In Education

Many studies have been conducted on the Pygmalion effect in the classroom. Teachers who are given information that certain students are more likely to excel and achieve than other members of the class often find that those students do, in fact, perform better — even if they are not objectively advantaged. Even teachers who try not to convey their beliefs or expectations for certain students often find that those expectations, whatever they are, have influential power.

Many psychologists think that teachers do actually convey their expectations to their students, even if neither they nor the children ever actually realize it. Body language is just as important as verbal communication when conveying both positive and negative expectations, as is tone of voice. The use of body language is most commonly a subconscious form of communication, but it can prove to be very powerful. The response and interpretation of non-verbal signals is also often subconscious but tends to be long-lasting, especially when referring to one person's expectations of another.

In Business

The Pygmalion effect also has an important role in the working world. Managers, bosses, and corporate superiors can often influence the work and success of employees by expecting them to either rise or fall. The same as in school, these expectations never have to be conveyed explicitly in order to take root.

Self-Perception

The idea of self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to self-perception is also an important part of the concept. A person who believes he is worthless or has other negative perceptions about his abilities and qualities will usually fulfill his expectations. He will never achieve his true potential but will confine himself within his own self-imposed limitations. People who tend to have a positive self-image and believe they are capable of achieving anything they set out to achieve are usually more likely to do so.

Strategic Use

Psychologists often teach individual patients, teachers, and business leaders to strategically use the Pygmalion effect to encourage success and positive thinking. By forcing oneself to set high expectations for others, the theory goes, one can actually help drive achievement and success that might not have been achieved all on its own. This sort of strategy is related to concepts like positive thinking and positive visualization, but goes a step farther in that it is usually meant to actually manifest in relationships and interactions with others.

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Discussion Comments

By BoatHugger — On Sep 28, 2010

I did a research paper on Rosenthal and his studies. The research that has been done on self-fulfilling prophecies dates back many, many years. Rosenthal did his first study in the 1950’s.

There was a study done in 1900 regarding a tabulating machine being used at the U.S. Census Bureau. The machine was new and required training. The inventor estimated that trained workers would be able to process 550 cards per day. After training and a couple of week’s experience, the workers were indeed producing 550 cards per day.

After a while, the workers were producing 700 cards a day but with extreme stress and great emotional costs.

By calabama71 — On Sep 28, 2010

In my social work course, we have reviewed several case studies about children who grow up in negative environments. Some parents tell their children that they are stupid and that they will never amount to anything. These children usually make poor grades in school and grow up to be fairly non-productive.

On the other hand, the children who grew up in positive environments with support and encouragement from their parents ended up excelling in school and went on to further their education and became very productive members of society.

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