Pygmalion Effect


In the tenth book of Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid wrote of Pygmalion, the sculptor of the island of Cyprus. Pygmalion had resolved never to marry, but one of his works was a beautiful woman, and the sculpture won his heart. He fell in love with his own creation and prayed to Venus (goddess of love) to send him a maiden like the statue. Instead, Venus gave the statue life, and the two married and had a son.

In 1971, Robert Rosenthal, a professor of social psychology at Harvard, borrowed Pygmalion’s name to describe a self-fulfilling prophesy phenomenon. He had done studies with elementary school children to show that what we think about someone can have a profound impact on how they behave and even how they feel about themselves. Simply put, people often live up to or down to our expectations of them.

Key Principles

The concept of this self-fulfilling prophecy can be summarized in four key principles:

1. Based on our experience and information we gather from other sources, we form certain expectations of the people we come in contact with.

2. We communicate those expectations with a variety of cues, some intentionally and some unintentionally.

3. People tend to respond to these cues by adjusting their behavior to match them. (They live up to or down to our expectations.)

4. The original expectation is then confirmed in our minds and provides us with justification for holding that opinion of the other person.

The process then repeats itself over and over in either a downward or upward cycle. It’s such a powerful cycle that we tend to discount any information that might disagree with our expectations of that person. We say things to ourselves like:

  • “That was a fluke.”
  • “It couldn’t have been her. It must have been (someone else’s) fault.”
  • “That was certainly out of character.”
  • “He’s just having an off-day.”
  • “He got lucky that time.”

Unless a significant event causes us to reconsider our opinions of the other person, it’s likely that the person will never be able to change how we see them and that the cycle will continue to spiral as long as the relationship lasts.

Over four hundred studies have confirmed the existence and impact of the Pygmalion Effect in classrooms, work environments, homes and laboratories. This should cause leaders in any environment to think carefully about the opinions they hold for the people they lead. Are these opinions fair? Do they allow our followers every opportunity to succeed, or do they create a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations?

If you are a leader (and almost all of us are in some context), it’s not enough to try harder not to show your low opinion of someone you lead. You’ve got to change your opinion. You can do this by focusing on a person’s strengths and inherent value. God made that person unique, and He never makes garbage. What is redeeming about them?

When your opinion changes, your expectations will change. When your expectations for an individual change, so will your behaviors toward that person. And if you just can’t bring yourself to have a higher opinion of someone, let someone else lead him.

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Filed under christianity, expectations, Interpersonal, leadership, parenting, Pygmalion Effect

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