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 corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.[1] The Pygmalion effect and the golem effect are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy. People will take the belief they have of themselves (negative in this case) and attribute traits of the belief with themselves and their work. This will lead them to perform closer to these expectations that they set for themselves. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regard to education and social class.

Studies of the Pygmalion effect are 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.[2] Whiteley, Sy, and Johnson claim that leaders' implicit followership theories (or LIFTs) are the forces driving Pygmalion effects. LIFTs are generally static perceptions a leader has of a follower. The leader expectations may be influenced by their perception of the given situation or of the follower themselves. Varying LIFTs are correlated with varying expectations. It is possible that perception and expectation are stored in a similar part in the brain, relating the two concepts.[2]

Rosenthal–Jacobson study[edit]

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968[3]) report and discuss the Pygmalion effect in the classroom at length.[4] In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children did indeed show that enhancement.

The purpose of the experiment was to support the hypothesis that reality can be influenced by the expectations of others. This influence can be beneficial as well as detrimental depending on which label an individual is assigned. The observer-expectancy effect, which involves an experimenter's unconsciously biased expectations, is tested in real life situations. Rosenthal posited that biased expectancies could essentially affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies as a result.

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 pretest to posttest. 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.[5] Rosenthal believed that even attitude or mood could positively effect 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.[6]

In this experiment, 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 into them through 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 disinterested in 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 even further this concept more, 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 it's students under such criteria.[8]

Applications to racism[edit]

According to once often-cited but controversial non-scientific study of Jane Elliott, the Pygmalion effect can play a role in racial expectations and behavior. Elliott was an American teacher and an 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. She had taken on students deemed as inferior due to their lack of ability to read well and put them through her experiment. Coming out 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 they agony was worth the perspective they had on life. One even stated that when he sees someone discriminating 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. This lesson learnt at an early age could be staggering in an attempt to destroy racism from society.[9]

Elliott found that the 4 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!" [6]

Jane Elliott has done the same non-scientific experiment with adults in workshops. The results are similar to those as 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]


"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."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Terence R. Mitchell and Denise Daniels: Motivation (2003). Walter C. Borman, Daniel R. Ilgen, Richard J. Klimoski, ed. Handbook of Psychology, volume 12. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 229. ISBN 0-471-38408-9. 
  2. ^ a b 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
  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 Check |isbn= value (help). 
  9. ^ Clark, William Peters ; with a foreword by Kenneth B. (1987). A class divided : then and now (Expanded ed. 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. ^ Hauman, retold by Watty Piper ; illustrated by George & Doris. The little engine that could (Abridged ed. ed.). New York, N.Y.: Platt & Munk. ISBN 978-0448463599. 

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