What Is the Pygmalion Effect? | Definition & Examples
The Pygmalion effect refers to situations where high expectations lead to improved performance and low expectations lead to worsened performance. Although the Pygmalion effect was originally observed in the classroom, it also has been applied to in the fields of management, business, and sports psychology.
The Pygmalion effect is also known as the Rosenthal effect, after the researcher who first observed the phenomenon.
What is the Pygmalion effect?
The Pygmalion effect is a psychological term used to describe the impact of positive or negative expectations on the performance of an individual or a group. It introduces bias into your research.
The underlying idea is that when a leader, authority figure, or role model believes we can succeed in a certain area, we will work hard to meet their expectations. This also implies that we do better when more is expected of us.
The Pygmalion effect has both academic and practical implications. For example, if a manager believes in the abilities of their team, the team will outperform one whose manager believes the opposite, even if the two teams are equally skilled.
Similarly, if a researcher has high expectations that patients assigned to the treatment group will succeed, these patients may have better outcomes than the control group. In this example, the Pygmalion effect takes the form of (unconscious) researcher bias.
How the Pygmalion effect works
The Pygmalion effect demonstrates the power expectations have in shaping behavior.
This effect occurs because we tend to internalize the labels others place upon us. We try to conform to those labels, whether positive or negative.
The Pygmalion effect works in a circular fashion:
- Others’ expectations about us influence their behavior towards us.
- Their behavior towards us influences how we see ourselves.
- How we see ourselves impacts our own behavior.
- Our behavior towards others influences their beliefs, reinforcing their expectations.
In other words, someone else’s high expectations for our performance doesn’t only impact how we act, but also how they act.
To apply this, let’s take the example of a teacher. A teacher’s expectations on students are conveyed in four ways:
Climate refers to the atmosphere created by the person who holds the expectation, in this case a teacher. This is often communicated nonverbally, perhaps by smiling and nodding or making eye contact. These cues can create a friendly and positive climate.
Feedback refers to the type of response the teacher gives to students. High-expectation students will likely receive more praise and more detailed feedback.
Input refers to the effort or energy the teacher invests. Some teachers tend to invest more time and effort in high-expectation students (e.g., by providing them with more difficult material).
Output refers to the tendency for teachers to call on “good” students more often, or encourage them to be more responsive.
Examples of the Pygmalion effect
The Pygmalion effect can explain how people perform in a variety of contexts.
In the context of education, the Pygmalion effect illustrates that teachers run the risk of only getting from students what they expect from them.
Different expectations usually lead to different treatments, even when this occurs unintentionally.
Why is the Pygmalion effect important?
The Pygmalion effect has implications in various contexts:
- Although this mechanism is mostly unconscious, it can also be used to intentionally enable other people’s development, like students, employees, or athletes. Coaches, for example, who let athletes know that they expect more of them can lead them to greater achievement as athletes.
- Being aware of the Pygmalion effect can help people in leadership positions realize how their attitude and expectations of their subordinates can affect them. A leader’s bias can influence their expectations of others and impose unfair or stereotypical labels on them.
- The Pygmalion effect can also affect entire groups and organizations. For example, it can shape the climate in entire departments, creating a culture of low expectations, or the opposite.
Other types of research bias
Frequently asked questions about the Pygmalion effect
- What is the observer-expectancy effect?
The observer-expectancy effect occurs when researchers influence the results of their own study through interactions with participants.
Researchers’ own beliefs and expectations about the study results may unintentionally influence participants through demand characteristics.
The observer-expectancy effect is often used synonymously with the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect.
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