The Pygmalion Effect is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to higher performance. It can be best understood by a circle where OUR BELIEFS about another person’s abilities influence OUR ACTIONS towards the other person. This action has an impact on the OTHERS´ BELIEFS about themselves. The beliefs about themselves cause the OTHERS´ ACTIONS towards us, which again reinforce OUR BELIEFS about that person.

And so on and on and on…

Let’s look at an example and start with YOUR BELIEFS

Imagine you are the coach of a soccer team and you observe your team on the first day: Chris and Joe are new members of your team. Chris reminds you of a famous player, Joe reminds you of an annoying boy from your high school years. Unconsciously you decide what to expect of each one of them.

Your beliefs influences YOUR ACTIONS

When Chris enters the field you are happy to see him. When he plays, you push him to do better, practice harder, stay an extra hour. If he makes a mistake you explain to him how to improve. When Joe comes in, you hardly notice him. You are glad to see him score, but you don’t give him much feedback and don´t invest extra time in his training. When Joe does a mistake you are a little annoyed.

Your actions impact THEIR BELIEFS about themselves

Chris feels you appreciate him and he appreciates you in return. He believes in his own success. Joe feels you have little patience and appreciation for him. He does not believe in his own success.

Their belief about themselves causes THEIR ACTIONS towards you:

Chris finds more and more joy in playing, and he never misses a training session. During the games, he gives 100% all the time. Joe finds less joy in playing than before and doesn’t give his full effort in the games. He starts to miss the training sessions sometimes.

Which reinforces YOUR BELIEFS about them:

You see how Chris enjoys playing, how he trains hard and shows a fast increase in his performance. Joe seems not to be very motivated, his skills don´t increase much and he starts to show up less. You knew it right away. Thank God, your instincts are right.

The Pygmalion effect is also known as the Rosenthal Experiment, named after a research of Robert Rosenthal at Harvard. In a first study, he challenged test subjects to coach rats through a maze. Half of the group were told their rats were extremely intelligent and specifically trained. The other half were told that their rats were ‘dumb’. In fact, the rats were all the same. During the experiment, however, the `smart rats´ performed well better than the `dumb ones´. This showed how the expectations of the coaches influenced even the performance of rats.

Rosenthal then did the “Pygmalion in School” Study together with Lenore Jacobson:

At the beginning of the school year, a group of primary school teachers were told that some of their new learners had extraordinary talent and potential. This information, which was completely made up, was given about random average students in each class; all students had done an IQ test in advance.

By the end of the year, the students that were described as more talented had significantly increased their performance in the IQ test, compared to the rest of the class.

 Robert Rosenthal concluded:

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

Now it’s your turn. What do you think about this theory? And if you believe it, is there a way to prevent ourselves from being shaped by others in a negative way?

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