Pygmalion effect: How expectations affect performance

You become as you are seen – the so-called Pygmalion effect, which goes back to studies by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, describes this phenomenon

The self-fulfilling prophecy – if you have not experienced this moment yourself, you know at least the expression. The pygmalion effect in psychology is a similar phenomenon: Other people’s expectations affect one’s own behavior and performance and thus inevitably become the result – in professional life, at school and also privately.

Pygmalion creates an image of its expectations

The fact that the Pygmalion effect is not an invisible thought construction is already apparent from the namesake. In Greek mythology, Pygmalion is a sculptor disillusioned with women.

In the search for the perfect woman, he creates a female statue as a projection of his expectations – and falls in love with her. The happy ending: the goddess Venus takes pity on him and awakens the statue to life for Pygmalion.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson show the Pygmalion effect in school

In fact, the Pygmalion effect is a little less romantic, but nonetheless just as effective. In the 1960s, they examined the relationship between existing expectations and the resulting outcome Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.

The two American psychologists would use an experiment to prove it that teachers with their expectations unconsciously affect students’ performance and thus can also increase it.

Pygmalion effect, illustration of self-fulfilling prophecy

The Pygmalion effect says you are automatically fulfilling your own prophecy

© VectorMine – Adobe Stock

For this, the teachers of an elementary school were tricked into believing it through a scientific test the students in a school class who are about to take a leap in performance in school development could be identified. After registering the performance potential, the proportion, according to the teachers’ information, can be around 20 percent of the students.

The background is that there are often three trains in public elementary schools in the United States: a class train with slow students, a class train with middle students, and a class train with fast-learning students.

In fact, the students in question were not actively identified in the experiment using a test procedure, but randomly selected by the researchers using a lottery. The test did not measure students’ potential for improvement, but their intelligence quotient.

Eight months after this first IQ test, the test was repeated with all elementary school students. The result: The previously randomly selected students had a significant increase in their intelligence quotient compared to the other students.

The Pygmalion effect affects teachers and students

Since no one other than the teachers involved had the information about the supposedly scientifically determined potential for a possible performance increase in the selected students, there was only one possible explanation: The teachers themselves ensured the performance improvement with their expectations and their behavior towards the students with the alleged talent – just as Pygmalion created his desired female figure.

According to Rosenthal and Jacobson, this also means that the teachers’ judgment was similarly affected by the presumed pre-selection of talents.

Experiments expectation effect influences behavior

The “experimental expectation effect” is seen as further evidence of the function of the Pygmalion effect. It is assumed here that the behavior of a supervisor influences the behavior of the subjects or experimental animals – depending on the existing expectations of the supervisor. “Hans, der Kluge” is a well-known example of this.

It’s not a human, it’s a horse. In the early 1900s, the stallion was said to be able to use his hooves to solve and count mathematical problems on appropriate boards. Psychologists, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the animal owner caused the animal to react by its own behavior.

Rosenthal effect with students and rats

Robert Rosenthal tried to prove this in 1963. His experiment with students and rats is known as the Rosenthal effect. Twelve students each received five rats. Six students received the information that their rats had been bred so intelligently that they would find their way through a maze particularly quickly. The other six students were informed that their rats were particularly stupid.

In fact, all rats were genetically from the same strain. The “smart rats” group did significantly better and completed the maze faster than the “stupid rats” control group. Rosenthal concluded The students ‘behavior toward the rats in the experiment affected the rats’ performance Have.

The pygmalion effect is also evident at work

It has now been proven that the Pygmalion effect is not limited to the school area studied. To The phenomenon of unconsciously promoting talents or in the negative case, the declining performance development can be found in the private, in the sports as well as in the professional field.

Well-known German-Austrian entrepreneur Reinhold Würth puts it this way: “Management that believes that 75 percent of employees are lazy, poorly qualified and thieves will get exactly this workforce.” If, on the other hand, it is assumed that 98 percent of the workforce is enthusiastic and has a positive attitude towards the company, that is exactly what will happen.

Positive expectation promotes positive development

The same assumes psychology, for example, for the relationship between coaches and trainees or also in the relationship between partners in a relationship.

If a positive perception and belief in a person is conveyed in a personal relationship, so this promotes the development of this person and the relationship with each other: the positive Pygmalion effect. If the opposite is practiced, the opposite development occurs: the negative Pygmalion effect.

Whether the Pygmalion effect is the same as one Self-fulfilling prophecy – there is still no consensus in psychology on this. With the Pygmalion effect, the influence comes from the outside and with the self-fulfilling prophecy, the influence comes from within the respective person. In fact, it would not matter as long as the goal behind it is the same: everything will be fine in the end – just like Pygmalion.

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