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What is Pygmalion Effect – Causes & Examples

Published by at August 22nd, 2023 , Revised On September 1, 2023

The intricacies of human behaviour and perception are vast and varied. Among these intricate patterns is the concept of expectations and their impact on individuals’ performances. One such phenomenon, largely studied in social psychology, is the Pygmalion effect. A clear understanding of this phenomenon can be derived from a scholarly source, which uses both primary source and secondary source materials to validate its information.

Example of the Pygmalion: Effect in a Classroom Setting:

At the beginning of the school year, a teacher is given a list of students and is told (falsely) that certain students on the list have been identified as potential high achievers based on a fictional “special test”. This example can be viewed as a form of cognitive bias where the teacher, without questioning the validity of the information or using any source evaluation method, acts on it. These students are, in reality, no different from the rest of their classmates and have been randomly selected. These students are, in reality, no different from the rest of their classmates and have been randomly selected.

Over the course of the school year, the teacher might exhibit explicit bias by believing that these particular students are high achievers. This could lead to the actor-observer bias where the teacher might:

  • Give them more challenging tasks, with a bias for action, believing they can handle it.
  • Spend extra time with them or provide additional resources to ensure their success.
  • Offer more words of encouragement and positive reinforcement.
  • Respond more positively to their questions or mistakes, seeing them as part of the learning process rather than a lack of ability.

As a result, by the end of the year, these randomly selected students might actually perform better than their peers, not because they were inherently more capable, but because of the teacher’s elevated expectations and the extra attention and resources they received. Their improved performance validates the teacher’s initial confirmation bias in their high potential, even though the entire scenario was based on a false premise.

This example demonstrates the power of belief and expectation. It shows how someone’s belief in another person’s potential can lead to tangible outcomes, emphasising the importance of positive reinforcement and high expectations in educational and workplace settings.

What is the Pygmalion Effect Definition 

The term “Pygmalion bias” or “Pygmalion effect” originated from a Greek myth and was popularised in the realm of social psychology and education. It refers to the phenomenon where higher expectations placed upon people can increase their performance. Conversely, lower expectations can lead to a decrease in performance.

The term “Pygmalion effect” originates from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he carved. In psychology and sociology, the Pygmalion effect, or the Rosenthal effect (named after Robert Rosenthal, a psychologist who studied the phenomenon), refers to the phenomenon where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. The underlying principle is that beliefs influence behaviours. 

When someone believes something about another person, they may treat that person in a manner consistent with that belief, and, in turn, that treatment can influence the person to behave in a manner consistent with the treatment.

Here’s how it works:

  • The expectation is Set: A teacher, manager, or other authority figure believes that a particular individual is particularly capable (or incapable).
  • Treatment Changes Based on Expectation: Due to this belief, the authority figure might provide more encouragement, training, opportunities, or attention to the individual. Alternatively, if the belief is negative, they might provide less support or more criticism.
  • Individual’s Performance Changes: The individual performs better (or worse) due to the changes in the treatment they receive.
  • Confirmation of Original Expectation: The change in performance seems to confirm the authority figure’s original belief, even though the change in treatment led to the performance change.

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Causes of Pygmalion Effect

Here are some of the causes or reasons behind the Pygmalion effect:

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

This is the foundational idea behind the Pygmalion effect. When a person (for instance, a teacher) expects a certain behaviour or outcome (e.g., high academic achievement) from someone else (like a student), the individual might subconsciously provide that person with more resources, opportunities, or positive reinforcement, leading that person to meet the expected outcome.

Behavioural Confirmation

When someone has a belief or expectation about what another person is like, they may engage in behaviours that elicit responses from the other person that confirm the original belief.

Differential Treatment

People with positive expectations may provide more resources, opportunities, or feedback, which can lead to better outcomes. For example, if a manager believes an employee is particularly talented, they might give them more training, better feedback, or more challenging assignments, thus fostering better performance.

Subconscious Non-verbal Cues

People often transmit their expectations through non-verbal cues like facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. These cues can be picked up, sometimes subconsciously, by the person being evaluated and can influence their behaviour.

Internalised Belief

The individual who is the subject of the expectation can start believing in the expectations set for them. If they are constantly told and treated like they are capable, they might develop a self-concept that aligns with this belief.

Feedback Loop

The Pygmalion effect can become a reinforcing loop. As the subject of the expectation begins to perform better, the person with the expectation receives confirmation that their belief is accurate, leading them to continue or intensify their behaviour that fosters the expected outcome.

Motivational Boost

Knowing that someone believes in your abilities can be a huge motivational boost. This belief can inspire confidence, reduce anxiety, and motivate further efforts towards a goal.

Examples of the Pygmalion Effect

Here are some examples of the Pygmalion effect:

Pygmalion Effect on Education

Perhaps the most famous study on the Pygmalion effect was conducted in the late 1960s by Rosenthal and Jacobson. Teachers were told that certain students (chosen randomly) were expected to be “intellectual bloomers” in the coming year. 

By the end of the year, these students, whom the teachers believed to be more promising, actually showed a significant gain in IQ scores. The mere belief of the teachers affected how they interacted with these students, and this change in behaviour improved the students’ performance.

Pygmalion Effect in the Workplace

Managers who have high expectations for their employees might provide them with more opportunities, better training, and more feedback. Consequently, these employees might perform better than other colleagues, not necessarily because they are inherently more skilled, but because they received better support and guidance.

Pygmalion Effect on Sports Coaching

A coach who believes that certain players have more potential might give them more playing time, personalised training, and feedback. These players, receiving extra attention and practice, may end up performing better than their teammates.

Pygmalion Effect on Personal Relationships

Suppose a parent believes one of their children is more academically inclined than another. In that case, they might spend more time reading with that child or provide more educational resources, which can lead to better academic performance for that child.

Pygmalion Effect in Therapy and Rehabilitation

Patients who are believed by their therapists or counsellors to be more likely to recover or improve might receive more attention or a more positive approach, leading to better outcomes.

Pygmalion Effect on Military Training

Drill sergeants who believe certain cadets are more promising might push them harder or give them more attention, leading to better performance from those cadets.

Why is the Pygmalion Effect Important?

The Pygmalion Effect is important for several reasons:

  • In classrooms, if teachers believe certain students are more talented or capable, they might treat them differently, leading those students to perform better. This highlights the importance of maintaining high expectations for all students, which can enhance their academic performance.
  • Managers’ expectations of their employees can influence their performance. Employees expected to succeed are often given more opportunities, more constructive feedback, and more encouragement, which can lead them to outperform their peers.
  • Our beliefs about family members, friends, or partners can influence their behaviours. Expecting the best from others can often lead them to display those positive traits and behaviours more frequently.
  • This effect can also be applied inward. Our beliefs about ourselves can impact our behaviours and outcomes. If we believe we are capable and competent, we are more likely to exhibit behaviours that confirm those beliefs.
  • Collective expectations about certain groups can influence those groups’ behaviours and outcomes. Unfortunately, this can also work in reverse with stereotypes, leading to the danger of a negative self-fulfilling prophecy, where lower expectations lead to decreased performance or outcomes.
  • Understanding the Pygmalion Effect can be instrumental in crafting interventions to break negative cycles. By consciously setting higher expectations, educators, managers, coaches, parents, and others can promote positive outcomes in those they guide.
  • Recognising the power of the Pygmalion Effect underscores the importance of being aware of our biases and preconceived notions. Unconscious biases might lead us to hold different expectations for different individuals, leading to disparities in opportunities and outcomes. 

One such unconscious bias can be affinity bias, where educators, managers, and other authority figures might favour individuals who share common traits or interests, regardless of their actual potential. 

It is also crucial to be aware of the ceiling effect that might restrict high performers from showing their true potential due to perceived limits. In research, one must also be cautious about publication bias, which can sway our understanding based on what studies get published.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Pygmalion effect refers to the phenomenon where higher expectations of a person lead to an increase in their performance. Derived from psychological research, it suggests that belief and expectation can influence outcomes.

If teachers, for instance, expect students to succeed, those students are more likely to do so.

To harness the Pygmalion effect, set high but achievable expectations for individuals. Express confidence in their abilities, provide positive feedback, and avoid negative stereotypes. The belief in their potential can motivate them to perform better. This can be applied in classrooms, workplaces, or any setting where performance matters.

In education, the Pygmalion effect refers to the phenomenon where teachers’ higher expectations for certain students inadvertently lead to an increase in those students’ performance. If teachers believe and behave as if certain students are more capable, those students tend to achieve more, influenced by this positive belief and reinforcement.

In leadership, the Pygmalion effect denotes that when leaders have higher expectations of their team members, those individuals often rise to meet those expectations. Leaders’ beliefs in their members’ abilities can positively influence their performance, fostering an environment of trust, motivation, and increased self-efficacy among team members.

The term “Pygmalion effect” is derived from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he carved. Miraculously, his strong belief and love brought the statue to life. Analogously, the effect suggests that strong beliefs can influence and transform another person’s behaviour and performance.

When applied to fraud prevention, the Pygmalion effect suggests that if organisations set high integrity standards and expectations, employees are more likely to align with those values. Expressing trust and confidence in employees’ ethical behaviour, and reinforcing those beliefs, can promote an environment less conducive to fraudulent activities.

About Owen Ingram

Avatar for Owen IngramIngram is a dissertation specialist. He has a master's degree in data sciences. His research work aims to compare the various types of research methods used among academicians and researchers.