Pygmalion Effect: How others’ expectations influence our behavior

Whether others expect a lot or little from us can have a big effect on our performance and behavior. The Pygmalion effect explains why this is so.

Most of us like to be right, that’s human nature. It often doesn’t matter whether we expect a positive or a negative result – we are secretly pleased that we were right in our assessment. But what if we influence what happens with our expectation? If the person from whom we expect a certain action or performance does exactly that – and because we expect it? Conversely, this could mean that we too react in a certain way because our counterpart anticipates it. The so-called Pygmalion effect describes precisely this psychological phenomenon.

Pygmalion in Greek mythology

The Pygmalion effect has its origins in Greek mythology, namely in the sculptor of the same name. He was so disappointed in women that he created a statue onto which he projected all his expectations of the female sex. Pygmalion fell in love with the statue – which Venus, the goddess of love, even brought to life at his request. Thus, Pygmalion had literally created the perfect woman from his expectations.

The psychological phenomenon is very similar: It says that people can increase their performance and change their behavior because others expect something specific from them. The Pygmalion effect is particularly common in the school environment. Teachers who assume that a student is particularly talented often unconsciously ensure an actual increase in performance.

The Pygmalion Effect: Proven in a school experiment in the 1960s

The American psychologist Robert Rosenthal has the Pygmalion effect together with the headmistress Lenore F. Jacobsen in one field experiment studied in the 1960s. The two of them told the teachers at Jacobsen’s elementary school that 20 percent of the students were about to take a big leap in development and that a significantly better performance could be expected in the coming year. In reality, they had randomly selected these children by drawing lots.

At the beginning of the experiment and after eight months, all primary school students completed an IQ test. The IQs of the children, who were said to have great potential to improve their performance, increased more than that of the other children. All conditions except the information about the supposed potential remained the same. From this, Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that only the higher expectations of the teachers had brought about the improvement in IQ.

The expectation as a self-fulfilling prophecy

The two saw their initial assumption confirmed that the teachers had unconsciously treated the students, from whom they expected a leap in development, differently and had given them more support. The expected increase in performance had thus proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as Pygmalion created the ideal woman from his imagination in Greek mythology, the teachers brought about the improved achievements of the children.

The findings from Rosenthal’s and Jacobsen’s experiment can also be transferred to other areas of life: A mother expects a lot from one of her children and thus unconsciously ensures that the offspring actually achieve more than their siblings. A team member from whom the boss hopes to get a lot of support for a project and who she therefore encourages is more likely to live up to these high expectations than others.

The Pygmalion effect can also show up in the partnership. Because the way we see our partner, he:she is very likely to behave as well. If we look at our counterpart in a particularly positive light and count on certain things within the relationship, it may well be that we encourage exactly this behavior.

But the opposite can also happen: If I don’t expect much from my:my partner:in anyway – à la “She’s forgetting to take out the garbage anyway” – then there’s a good chance that this will actually happen. This is how we unconsciously signal to the other person that we don’t really believe in them. She may then resign because she believes that she cannot please us anyway.

How can we use the knowledge of the Pygmalion effect?

Like many other examples, the Pygmalion Effect confirms how powerful our thoughts are. They not only influence how we behave ourselves and how we appear to others, but ultimately also how others behave towards us. We should not forget this power – neither at work nor in relationships or when dealing with children. Because subconsciously, other people feel our expectations of them very well – even if we don’t express them explicitly.

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