The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon that states that higher expectations in a particular area leads to better performance.
Have you heard the saying, “Aim for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Though the saying is scientifically incorrect(because the sun is the only star around), the moral lesson it provides is, the higher you aim, the more you’ll achieve even if you fail to meet your target.
Have you noticed a tough coach improving the performance of the student? How about a teacher who helps pupils score better grades by setting the bar high?
As per the pygmalion effect, such expectations lead to better performance.
- What is the Pygmalion effect?
- Examples from research
- What attributes of a teacher matter?
- How to avoid/apply the pygmalion effect?
- Pointers while implementing the pygmalion effect:
- The negative effects of high expectations
What is the Pygmalion effect?
The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon where setting higher expectations in an area of expertise on any person prompts him/her to perform better. The difficult benchmark turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy where the person fulfills the expectations because he/she believes the target is achievable.
The opposite is called the Golem effect where easy expectations convince people to only do what was expected even if they could do achieve better results.
The Pygmalion effect states that you deliver better performance when others(teachers, parents, siblings, society) expect you to deliver higher than usual results. But, many successful individuals have mentioned how setting tough goals for themselves has helped them perform better.
The origin of the name Pygmalion effect
The effect is named after Pygmalion, a sculptor from Cyprus as per Greek mythology. After noticing women from the city prostituting themselves, Pygmalion had declared that he wasn’t interested in any romantic relationship.
One day, he carved a sculpture of a woman using ivory. Enchanted by the beauty of his own creation, he fell in love with it. On the day of the festival of Aphrodite, a Greek goddess, he made an offering to the altar and silently wished that his bride would be “a living likeness of his ivory girl.” Later that night, Aphrodite granted Pygmalion’s wish and made the statue come to life.
Since Pygmalion’s expectations were so high that a miracle occurred, the effect is rightly named after him.
Examples from research
The Rosenthal effect
Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson were the first to perform research to explicitly test for the Pygmalion effect in education systems. In 1968, these researchers showed that a teacher’s expectations have a direct influence on the grades of the student. They performed an experiment where students of an elementary school took intelligence pre-tests.
After evaluating the answers, Rosenthal and Jacobson provided the teachers with a list of names(about 20%) who had shown unusually high potential for intellectual growth. The researchers mentioned that the students on that list would perform better than the others in academics.
Eight months later, most of the students on the list had scored significantly higher than the others. But, you know what the interesting part is? The list Rosenthal and Jacobson provided had nothing to do with the pre-test they conducted. They had selected pupils at random.
They argued that when a teacher believed that a student could achieve more, they gave them tougher assignments and better attention in the classroom. The pupils also believed in themselves. The combination of both led to a higher score.
The Benjamin Bloom Study
In 1985, Benjamin Bloom collaborated with other researchers from the University of Chicago to analyze the reasons behind world-class performance. The study consisted of 120 distinguished professionals from diverse segments like art, athletics, music, academics, and more. The participants included Olympic swimmers, mathematicians, sculptors, pianists, neurologists, tennis champions, etc.
Bloom observed that most successful individuals did not begin with inherent talent. They all went through a similar learning and development process. Almost every world-class performer had a coach, a teacher, a mentor, or a manager who believed in them and set a very high bar. As a part of their journey, this person facilitated better practice and imbibed a mindset of making these experts more critical of their own performance.
Their study resonated with another research performed in 1929 by Alfred North Whitehead. As per the theory, wold class performance goes through three different phases:
Phase 1 – Romance:
The first step begins when a person takes up an activity(music, sports, art) for fun or for the sake of trying it out. Often, parents play a pivotal role by introducing their kids to the activity at an early age. But, the parents of the world-class performers did not possess high expertise themselves. For example, less than half of the pianists’ parents had ever played any musical instrument.
Once the parents introduce their children to the activity, a teacher(parent, coach, mentor) helps the pupil develop a love for the task by challenging and motivating them the right way. In the early stages, the students perform the activity to a reasonable extent, but nowhere close to a top-class level. In many cases, they’re not even the best performers among the group yet.
Phase 2 – Precision:
After the student develops a love for the activity, the teacher helps him/her train keeping long-term skills in mind. A systematic approach helps the student improve continuously. This phase goes on for about 4-6 years. The same teacher might facilitate the training or someone with higher expertise takes over the role of the coach.
Phase 3 – Integration:
In the final phase, the student continues to practice with a master teacher putting in several hours of practice over the years. Often, the world-class performers lived and practiced around other individuals who pursued similar goals. After years of practice, the person goes on to achieve mastery in the field.
For the 120 individuals that Bloom and the team studied, the approximate period required to attain world-class expertise was in the range of 15-20 years. What’s interesting was, when the individual was 12 years old hardly anyone recognized what the person would achieve. Among the 120, only in 10% of the cases did anyone have the confidence that the person would develop expertise which would put him/her into the top 25% bracket.
So as per the research conducted, 4 factors influence your performance in an area as shown in the figure below. The divisions are only for reference and the proportion each of these attributes holds is hard to measure and therefore unknown.
What attributes of a teacher matter?
Any mentor who simply sets high expectations does not facilitate world-class performance. If you pick a random kid and attempt to train a world-class baseball player out of him/her by setting difficult goals, you wouldn’t succeed. You’ll have to provide the right training and use a methodical approach.
Here are the 4 attributes/techniques a teacher must have to turn the pupil into an expert.
Students mingle the best and train hard when the teacher is warm and friendly. Holding strict expectations works, but the moment the coach tries to act like a ringmaster with a whip, the students operate out of fear instead of motivation.
The human brain is capable of extraordinary feats when it follows the right advice. A master teacher constantly provides input to the student to help correct techniques for the long run.
A master teacher is aware that a student with the right mindset can surpass the skills they possess as the tutor. For example, Lazlo Polgar trained his daughters to become chess grandmasters even though he was only an average player. The right coach nurtures students to step outside their comfort zone and improve their skills until they turn world-class.
Students pay attention and implement feedback when the coach delivers it the right way. The best teachers are neither overly critical nor too gentle. They master the art of constructive criticism to help the student realize their mistakes and correct them.
How to avoid/apply the pygmalion effect?
If you’re responsible for a group of people, you can put the effect to the right use.
As a teacher:
Teachers have the habit of condemning students individually or as a group. Some of the claims they make are:
- This is the worst batch I’ve ever taught
- I am not sure you’ll pass the test
- The exam this time will be extremely difficult, so don’t expect good grades
Such remarks instill the wrong mindset in the brains of kids. As a teacher, you can train pupils to develop a winning mindset by setting high expectations, providing the right input, challenging students to find the answers, and teaching long term skills.
As a manager/leader:
In the corporate world, managers come in different shapes and flavors. The right leaders whom people love to work for rare gems. A common mistake in management psychology is a lack of belief which prevents the team members from realizing their full potential. For example:
- Assuming a team member isn’t good enough
- Believing a direct report isn’t capable of handling bigger responsibilities
- Presuming that person X won’t be as successful as person Y
Even though you have reasons for such thoughts, you must hold them back. If not, such assumptions turn into reality because you set them up for failure. Instead, trust your people to deliver results, and some, if not all, will surprise you.
As a parent:
Help your child try out different activities. When you give your kids enough opportunities, they’ll stumble upon one or the other activity they enjoy.
From there, you have to provide your kid with the right environment to love what he/she is doing and facilitate continuous improvement. You can play the role of the coach yourself or find the right person for the job.
You’ll have to set a high bar and make sacrifices to train your children to become world-class at what they enjoy.
As an individual
If you do not have a mentor who sets high expectations of you, be that person yourself. Hold yourself accountable to attain difficult results such that you force yourself to step outside the comfort zone. When you believe you’re capable of achieving tough targets, it turns into a self fulfilling prophecy.
If you ask any highly successful person, they’ll you how they believed in their potential to achieve what they did. Rarely do you find an extraordinary person who accomplished great things by chance.
Pointers while implementing the pygmalion effect:
1. Takes time
World-class performance takes time. Not weeks, not months, but years and decades of persistent effort. Such patience isn’t for the weak-hearted. So, if you’re expecting gargantuan results in a short span, you’ll disappoint yourself.
2. Needs the right effort
World-class performance does not come out of relentless practice, but the right practice. If you play chess against a software on your computer for 16 hours a day for the next decade, will you turn into a grandmaster? It’s possible but unlikely. You’ll have to learn the right techniques to speed up your expertise.
Likewise, in every skill, the right practice for an extended period serves as the difference between the best and the best of the best.
3. The cost is high
Becoming world-class comes at a cost, which isn’t about money alone. You’ll have to pay the cost in terms of sacrifices and risks. Every professional athlete has given up various other fun activities to make time for practice. Similarly, to become the top 0.01% of the world in a specific area, you have to give up on many others because you only have 24 hours in a day.
4. The line between high expectations and abuse is thin
Setting high expectations against the will of the person is abuse. The person undergoing the training must willingly agree to go through the long process of hardships. If not, you’re damaging the student both physically and mentally.
The negative effects of high expectations
Many kids are forced to perform because their parents place way too high expectations.
Some of the children participating in the spelling bee are coerced by their parents to put in hours of practice for winning the competition. In the past, cases have surfaced where the parents abused their children to practice for the contest. People have challenged the competition itself claiming that children who spend their early years on spelling have no benefit whatsoever.
The spelling bee is one such example. Parents force their children to practice other competitions like sports, olympiads, and more.
Andre Agassi is an 8-time tennis grand slam champion and an Olympic gold medalist. His titles rank him among the top 10 tennis players of all time.
In his autobiography, Open, Agassi mentions how his father forced him to play tennis against his choice.
“I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.”Andre Agassi
During his childhood, his father compelled him to spend all the time available for practice. After a point, his education was so derailed that Agassi had no choice but to pursue tennis because he knew nothing else.
Victoria Pendleton is an Olympic winning track cyclist. In an honest interview with the media, she mentioned how the pressure to perform was so immense that after winning, she felt more relieved than happy.
Letting her team down constantly ran through her mind. Many a time she wanted to win simply because of the expectations than personal satisfaction.
Amy Chua and her daughters:
Amy Chua, in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, emphasizes the importance of strict parenting. The book has its set of cult followers and fierce criticizers.
People accuse Amy Chua to have abused her children into practicing the violin. But the daughters themselves who are now adults do not agree with the critics. One of the daughters mentioned that her childhood was tough, but a happy one. So whether the children were pushed too far is debatable.
So far you have heard that when you believe in yourself, you can do great things. But as per the pygmalion effect, you can accomplish enormous success when others believe in you and demand high performance.
Whether you’re a teacher, a leader, or an individual, you can set the pygmalion effect in motion to boost your performance. But make sure, whoever is going through the practice(yourself or a student) does so out of interest and not compulsion.
When you use the Pygmalion effect the right way, massive results and tremendous success follow. Do you plan to set high expectations out of yourself or others from now on?
“The Pygmalion Effect.” Duquesne University, www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning-at-duquesne/pygmalion.
“Pygmalion in the Classroom.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Nov. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_in_the_Classroom.
Tim Gibbons M. S.(1998). The Development of Excellence – http://www.uvm.edu/~jdericks/courses/WSCCE/lit/The%20Development%20of%20Excellence.doc
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.