Imagine this, two employees, one top seller of last month and on an average Joe. The boss assigns them the same task, but since he has more expectations for the top seller, he ends up giving her a lot of encouragement and care.
So who do you think made more improvement in the following month? The answer would be: the top seller, and it does not necessarily have everything to do with her own talent, but mostly due to the fact that the boss believed in her.
And this phenomenon is called The Pygmalion Effect or the self-Fulfilling prophecy of expectations.
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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Pygmalion Effect
What is the Pygmalion effect?
The Pygmalion effect describes situations where someone’s high expectations improves our behavior and therefore our performance in a given area. It suggests that we do better when more is expected of us.
The Pygmalion effect got its name from the Greek myth of Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, then turned his sculpture into a woman as he had wished. Pygmalion’s fixation on the sculpture allowed it to come to life, just as our focus on an expectation can impact the outcome in a given situation.
The Pygmalion Effect was first experimented in 1968 by Social psychologist Robert Rosenthal and elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson in a classroom. Rosenthal and Jacobsen gave elementary school children an IQ test and told them which students were going to be Bloomers, the top 20% of the class with the most potential for intellectual growth.
They found that these “Bloomers” children received most of the teachers’ attention, while others didn’t. The teachers created a nicer environment for the Bloomers, they gave them more time and attention, they called on them for answers more often and they gave them more detailed feedback when they got something wrong.
The results showed that Bloomers IQ scores had risen (experimental group) significantly higher than the average students (control group), even though these academic bloomers were chosen at random. The bloomers gained an average of two IQ points in verbal ability, seven points in reasoning and four points in over all IQ.
The experiment showed that the teachers’ expectations were a self-fulfilling prophecy. As their expectations affected their treatments of the students and influenced how they performed.
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Up and down sides of the Pygmalion Effect
The Pygmalion effect means that expectations of others can drastically influence our performance. We work hard to fulfill the expectations of people who think of us highly.
In business or education settings, these people could be our employers or teachers. When they have faith that we will achieve great things, it influences the faith we have in ourselves. As a result, we push ourselves harder because we believe we can.
However, the Pygmalion effect also creates systematic problems, as Someone’s high expectations for our performance don’t only impact how we act, but also impacts how they act. So for instance, if the teacher sees the potential in a student, that teacher will be more likely to pay attention to that particular student. This results in negligence of other students, which would lead to some students falling behind and others making progress.
Since our expectations impact how we treat others, the Pygmalion effect only positively impacts those that we already expect a lot from. It can be especially damaging for young children who are malleable and still building their self-concept based on other people’s opinions. People in positions of influence therefore need to be careful of managing and mediating their expectations.
So how do we best utilize its effects?
The Pygmalion effect is not something we can activate by ourselves, because it relies on other people’s expectations of us as a motive to succeed. However, awareness of the Pygmalion effect can ensure that we put our best foot forward when we first meet our superiors.
In doing so, we can create high expectations from the start of a school year, project or job, that make it more likely that our superiors will better support us, challenge us, and ensure that we succeed.
However, alternatively, if we don’t feel as though our superiors have high expectations of us, we may feel discouraged, which will negatively impact our behavior. We may want to look to other people in our life that do have high expectations of us, like our friends and family, and use their beliefs as motivators to prove our employers or teachers wrong.
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