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The Pygmalion Effect: How Expectation Shapes Our Behaviour

Jun 24, 2020

Have you come across the idea behind The Pygmalion Effect? It follows a very interesting theory which we will be discussing in today’s post.

Over the years as a life coach, I’ve learnt something very important about self esteem in that it’s far from an exact science. So many factors come into play such as the way we’re raised, our formative childhood experiences, how we develop as adults. The totality of all our experience feeds into our self-esteem and confidence. Our innate childlike confidence is often knocked out of us by life and other people. The experience is pretty universal.

The online world also adds additional pressure, especially to children and young adults. Many of whom don’t know a world without the pressure of maintaining an online presence and its obsession with perfection, the number of ‘likes’ we get, and an abundance of narcissistic selfies. Here at my thoughts on The Pygmalion Effect: How expectation shapes our behaviour.

What Is The Pygmalion Effect?

Harvard social psychologist, Dr Robert Rosenthal, and Lenore Jacobson, an educator, wrote about the Pygmalion Effect. Essentially, their theory is based on self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words: We get what we expect.

The word ‘Pygmalion’ comes from a play of that name by George Bernard Shaw. A professor makes a bet that he can teach a Cockney flower girl how to speak and behave like a lady. You might recognise the plot as the musical, My Fair Lady. It was used again in the 1980s movie Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.

To illustrate the real impact of expectations, Rosenthal conducted an experiment called “Pygmalion in the Classroom”. He tested 18 classes of elementary school children using non-verbal intelligence tests and identified 20 per cent of those children as being “intellectual bloomers”. The teachers of these bloomers were then informed and told that they could expect to see significant intellectual gains from those children.

Meeting Expectations

Of course, the teachers assumed this identification was based on test results, but the bloomers were chosen randomly. Eight months later, all the children were retested and those identified as bloomers 
had increased in IQ points over the rest of the group.

Essentially, the teachers in Rosenthal’s experiment immediately formed expectations of ability and intelligence based on what they were told, and those expectations changed their behaviour and reinforced their beliefs about each child.

If the teacher believed they were teaching a bloomer, they were much more likely to spend extra time with that child; they were more likely to make a special effort to ensure those children were supported and understood the material; they were more likely to encourage those children to work hard. And, as a consequence, the intelligence of the bloomers flourished. Moreover, if a bloomer made a mistake or was disruptive in class, the teacher was much more likely to put that down to the student having a lapse of concentration or an ‘off day’.

The teacher’s expectations of that child would therefore massively influence their day-to-day interactions. If the teacher believed they were interacting with a non-bloomer, they were much less likely to spend time with that child. If a non-bloomer made a mistake there would be little extra help; after all, that child had average intellectual capabilities, so why waste time fostering something that just wasn’t there?!

If the non-bloomer was disruptive it would be put down to their averageness. The teachers were less patient, less encouraging and naturally favoured the bloomers because their input would be more likely to bear fruit.

How Behaviour Is Influenced

People can often be cruel to each other and do and say things that can have a profound impact on a young mind; ironically, many are driven by love and a desire to keep us from danger. Parents, for example, may relentlessly remind their daughter of ‘stranger danger’, telling horror story after horror story to ensure she gets the message and stays safe. Take this too far, however, and its reiteration can make the daughter extremely shy and reserved, which carries forward into adulthood.

Of course, we’re also influenced by people who don’t have our best interests at heart and are just mean and bitter, hellbent on passing on that bitterness. In those situations, it’s worth remembering that “projection is perception”. All those horrible things that someone is saying to you are, almost always, a reflection of who they are, not who you are.

Fostering Failure

Of course, if a non-bloomer did well in a test or produced a good piece of work, the teacher was more suspicious of their effort or simply put it down to luck! But the only difference between those who improved their IQ score and those who didn’t was the teacher’s expectations of that improvement.

Just think about that for a moment. What changed for those children whose IQ increased? The only thing that changed was their teacher’s behaviour toward them. They were encouraged and supported and therefore their self-esteem and confidence were bolstered, which also undoubtedly increased their effort and sense of wellbeing.

No doubt the teachers considered the outcome of the tests as validation of their efforts. Until, of course, Dr Rosenthal revealed the real experiment: to test just how much teachers’ expectations about the potential of each child influenced the potential of each child! It’s a sobering thought and something we should all remember: People will always rise or fall to meet our expectations!

We Experience What We Expect

This is why fostering self-esteem and confidence is so important. 
We experience what we expect. The more we believe something, whether good or bad, the more likely we are to make that belief or expectation a reality. There is no such thing as luck.

Instead, the more open we are towards positive action and opportunity, the more positive action and opportunity will come our way. This magnetic pull between what we believe and what we experience works equally well for good and bad expectations, so focus on the upside, the positive opportunity and what you want to achieve, not what you want to get away from.

Positive & Negative Beliefs

Regardless of how they are created, what we are repeatedly told or experience when we are young creates our beliefs about the world. The positive beliefs such as, “I’m good at math” or “I’m smart” can help direct us toward additional positive experiences, open up opportunities and help us develop as adult human beings.

The negative ones, often known as “limiting beliefs”, can and do hold us back. Limiting beliefs can be what we think about ourselves and what we think we are capable of. They include things like, “I’m not good with people” or “I’m not smart” or ‘I don’t deserve to be happy”–the list is endless. Rather unsurprisingly, limiting beliefs have a profound influence on what we expect from ourselves and others, which in turn alters the outcome and impacts the “reality” we create for ourselves, through the Pygmalion Effect.

Find Out More

In the next couple of posts, we’ll talk about ways to boost your confidence and self esteem. As a virtual life coach, I help my clients with a variety of issues they may be facing.

If you feel like you need more guidance, or if you simply feel stuck, read my latest book Your Life Your Way. It will help you move forward with confidence.

Are you ready to do more with your life?

Contact Paula now to discuss how she can support you.