How To Actually Succeed In Life (The Pygmalion Effect)

How To Actually Succeed In Life (The Pygmalion Effect) - Has someone such as a teacher, parent or coach ever had high expectations for you and though you weren’t sure you could do it, you worked really hard and achieved or even exceeded a goal? Congratulations, you just experienced the Pygmalion effect.

The Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect can be boiled down to a single statement ‘higher expectations lead to higher performance’. Your positive beliefs about a person’s capabilities impact your behavior towards the person which in turn influences the person’s beliefs about themselves. How they feel about themselves impacts their behavior towards you.

This confirms and strengthens your original beliefs about them and so on, basically creating a cycle of challenging positivity. The term comes from a Greek mythology about a sculptor named Pygmalion who carved an ivory statue of a woman so perfect that he fell in love with his creation.

In despair, Pygmalion prayed to Venus, the goddess of love asking her to bring him a woman like the statue. She was so inspired by his love that she brought the statue to life. Yeah. The secondary name for this phenomena makes more sense to us. In 1963 Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal tried an experiment using a controlled laboratory environment.

He had two groups of students coach rats through a maze, misinforming one group that their rats were specially bred to be smart and ’maze bright’, while telling the other group that their rats were dumb and ‘maze dull’. In actuality there was no difference between the two groups of rats; all were just ordinary lab rats and randomly assigned to the bright or dull group.

The Pygmalion Effect

However, during the experiment the ‘smart’ rats far outperformed the dumb rats. This showed that the expectations of the coaches and how they trained their rats as a result of those expectations affected the behavior of the rats. Based on the success with his experiment, Rosenthal conducted a large study, this time with humans at an elementary school.

Working with principal Lenore F. Jacobson, Rosenthal administered an IQ test to students at Spruce Elementary School in South San Francisco. Afterwards, teachers were told that some of the students were "intellectual bloomers" and should do better academically as compared to their classmates. The teachers were given a list of the bloomers’ names.

In reality, randomly 20% of the students were designated as "intellectual bloomers". Over the next school year, the designated bloomers excelled as predicted. At the end of the study, 8 months later Rosenthal once again tested students using the same IQ test. In all grades, students in both the 20% bloomer group and the regular student control group showed on average a gain in IQ from the first IQ test to the second IQ test.

However, the intellectual bloomers gained more IQ points on average, relative to the regular students. Overall, in grades first through six, the bloomer group showed about a 12 point gain as compared to 8.5 point gain for the control group. First and second grade bloomers showed significant IQ gains, on average upwards of 27 points.

This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations in their students’ potential, particularly for young children, can influence student achievement. Rosenthal’s study reverberated through the education system. Basically everyone has great potential, if only their teacher would encourage it! Rosenthal’s experiment was somewhat controversial and criticized for weak methodology.

Some felt that the IQ test Resenthal used was flawed. Teachers at the school ended up feeling angry and betrayed. Since then researchers have endeavored to recreate Rosenthal’s study with varying degrees of success. Results seem to be most fruitful when the teacher’s behavior is subconsciously driven, meaning that results tend to be not as strong when a teacher consciously creates expectations and alters their actions as opposed to truly believing in someone and acting accordingly.

Even so the Pygmalion effect is a powerful tool and skills for encouraging the effect are taught in educator and leadership management courses, and are practiced in businesses, militaries and schools around the world. So what happens when a person has negative expectations of you? Yes, the opposite of the Pygmalion Effect is true, lower expectations lead to lower performance, it’s called the Golem effect.

The effect is named after the golem, a magical clay creature in Jewish mythology. In one legend, the golem was brought to life by a Rabbi to protect the Jews of Prague. However, over time, the golem was corrupted to the point of being a danger to those he was supposed to serve and had to be destroyed.

As you can imagine the Pygmalion and Golem effects can have severe ramifications when a teacher, boss, coach, etc has a personal bias for or against a particular ethnicity,gender or frankly any other way people categorize other people. Also both effects are self-fulfilling prophecies. Whether the expectations come from us or others, the effect manifests in the same fashion.

An interesting, non scientific experiment variation on these phonomeon was carried out by teacher Iowan Jane Elliott in 1968. Searching for a way to explain racism to her all white 3rd grade class the day after after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Elliott segregated her students into “blue-eyed” and “brown-eyed” groups.

On the first day, she told the class that blue-eyed people were superior and treated the students accordingly. Among other injustices brown-eyed students had five fewer minutes of recess and weren’t allowed to play with the blue-eyed students. In class the brown eyed students were forced to sit at the back of the classroom.

Throughout the day Elliot made various comments about the inferiority of brown-eyed students. The following day, the status was reversed, with brown-eyed students being superior and the blue-eyed students considered inferior. Elliot found that during the day they were considered inferior, the students’ work suffered.

Also she was shocked to discover how quickly the attitudes of children in the superior group turned vicious and discriminating. Afterwards the exercise was over, Elliot had her class write essays on the experience. She ended up getting some of the essays published in her local newspaper. The reaction to Elliott’s experiment was explosive and she was ostracized in her town.

However she went on to become a diversity educator and some of her later work became the basis for modern corporate diversity training. So what does this all mean? Well, unfortunately you can’t control people’s opinions of you. The truth is that ultimately no matter how amazing you are, someone’s probably going to have a negative opinion of you and treat you accordingly.

So our best suggestion is to Pygmalion yourself. The mentor, teacher or boss you want or need simply may not show up in your life. You can spend valuable time waiting around for them or your can do some personal work and create some aspects of such a relationship in yourself.

So how can you apply the Pygmalion effect to your personal, academic or professional life? Have high expectations for yourself and set ambitious goals to reach. What would you like your life to look like a year from now? Five years from now? Create a goal map for yourself, listing out smaller steps to take that lead to achieving a big goal.

Don’t forget to build in rewards for achieving various mini goals along the way to bigger challenges. Try to develop and improve your sense of personal responsibility. Explore and cultivate your strengths and passions. What do you like to do? What are you interested in? Sure work on weaknesses too, but focus on your strengths.

Improving a weakness frequently means that you can go from mediocre to okay or not bad. But, when you work on your strengths, you can strive for mastery or excellence. Manage your weaknesses so they aren’t hindrances, but put the majority of your energy into cultivating your strengths.

Write out a personal peptalk that you can read aloud when you’re frustrated, anxious,discouraged or having a bad day. Your peptalk should mention some of your past achievements, things you like about yourself and plans for the future. Surround yourself with thoughtful, positive people who support you and your goals and have goals of their own they are striving towards.

Sometimes it’s not possible to remove negative or unhealthy people from your life. As much as possible ignore the haters. Are you whom others say you are, or are you who you want to be? You can also practice the Pygmalion effect with other people. You don’t have to be their teacher or boss to be a force for positive change in their lives.

Have high yet realistic expectations of them. Listen attentively during conversations and don’t cut your conversation partner off while they’re speaking. Offer encouragement. Be respectful and value other people’s time. In the famous book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, Stephen R. Covey says “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be”.

How can that quote play out in your life? Do you have a particular incident where the pygmalion effect happened in your life? Let us know in the comments.
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