The Pygmalion Effect: How Expectations Change Reality

The Pygmalion Effect: How Expectations Change Reality

The Pygmalion Effect: How Expectations Change Reality

September 16, 2021


We can influence reality much more than we think.
Photo by Ksenia Zhevlakova

Ksenia Zhevlakova

The Pygmalion Effect: How Expectations Change Reality


The Pygmalion effect, the Rosenthal effect, or the experimenter’s bias are different names for the same psychological phenomenon related to self-fulfilling prophecies. The essence of the effect is that a person’s expectations determine his actions.

Excursion into history

Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment: at the beginning of the school year, they singled out students from different grades of elementary school who, according to test results, turned out to be more talented and had a higher IQ than their classmates. In fact, no outstanding abilities were found in them and the students were chosen randomly, but the teachers were told the opposite. Retesting at the end of the year showed that the results of the “gifted” students improved on average, and the IQ increased.

According to psychologists, the high expectations of teachers affected the progress of students.

Teachers, expecting high results, approached the learning process of the selected group differently, allowing more creative freedom and trying to inspire students. Rosenthal and Jacobson attributed this phenomenon to the Pygmalion effect.

Another example from history prior to Rosenthal’s experiment is the Clever Gantz horse, owned by teacher and horse breeder William von Austin. The animal answered the asked questions with a hoof strike with an accuracy of up to 90%. The horse added, multiplied and named the time and date. Naturally, this aroused interest not only among onlookers, but also among psychologists.

Psychologist and biologist Oskar Pfungst came to meet Gantz in person. It turned out that the animal not only does not understand human speech, but is also unable to carry out mathematical calculations. So how did you get those 90% accurate answers? The fact is that both the host and the audience gave non-verbal signals when Ganz gave the correct answer. Pfungst found that as soon as Ganz got to the right answer, the questioner lowered his head. And if the horse was wearing blinkers, then he was mistaken.

How the Pygmalion effect works

The fact is that our brain has difficulty distinguishing between perception and expectation. Sociologist Robert Merton has described self-fulfilling prophecies, which include the Pygmalion effect, as self-hypnosis. Having initially a belief about ourselves or others, we influence reality and make it become true. This psychological phenomenon allows you to purposefully or accidentally influence reality.

Another experimentconducted by Rebecca Curtis and Kim Miller confirms this. In two groups, students were paired up. Participants in one group were given the deliberately false statement that they were attractive to their partner, while participants in the other group were given the opposite. After that, the couples were invited to talk. And the result justified itself.

Students who believed that they were attractive to their partner were more accommodating in conversation, made contact, and the manner of communication was more pleasant than in those couples who thought differently.

In addition, students who thought they liked their partner actually gained more liking than participants from opposing pairs.

Surely you have been exposed to the Pygmalion effect more than once, without noticing it yourself. For example, thinking that we will not cope with a certain task, we give up, and our behavior and actions lead to real failure. In the opposite situation, if they expect you to solve the problem, suggesting that everything will work out and you will cope, the actions and the result will be different.

Pygmalion effect in practice

In fact, the Pygmalion effect is a secret weapon in the field of management. People’s expectations have an impact on our actions, thoughts, perceptions of opportunities and achievements. John Sterling Livingston, lecturer at Harvard Business School, founder of the Department of Defense Logistics Management Institute, said opinion about the Pygmalion effect in management. In his work, he developed the idea of ​​the influence of expectations on actions and results, paying special attention to the expectations of leaders from subordinates.

John Sterling Livingston
lecturer at Harvard Business School, founder of the US Department of Defense Logistics Management Institute

If a manager has high expectations for his subordinates, then productivity will be high. If expectations are low, then productivity will decrease.

Livingston believed that managers should understand how the Pygmalion effect works, because the results of employees directly depend on the expectations of managers. A good leader, according to Livingston, must have high expectations, while an ineffective manager is not capable of this. He made a connection between the self-esteem of the leader and the expectations that he shows to subordinates. A self-confident manager tends to expect high performance from employees, while a poor manager is less confident and, moreover, cannot hope to get something supernatural from employees.

To translate into results, expectations must first be achievable and realistic.

John Sterling Livingston
lecturer at Harvard Business School, founder of the Institute of Logistics Management…






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