The Pygmalion Effect or Rosenthal Effect— How Positive Expectations can trick You to give High Performance

The Pygmalion effect also known as the Rosenthal effect is a psychological phenomenon in which— our positive or negative expectations, that we hold for others can impact the way we behave with them.

Which can further influence the expected result to occur. As people tend to do better when more is expected from them.

In short, having positive expectations from others can accelerate someone’s performance. While having negative expectations from others can lead to poor performance of that individual.

The origin of the word Pygmalion:

This effect has been named after George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913), where a phonetics professor makes a bet— that he can teach a poor, illiterate flower girl to act like an upper-class lady.

While the term originates from a Greek legend about a sculptor named Pygmalion, who fell in love with the statue of a woman he carved. Pygmalion pleaded the Goddess of Love ‘Aphrodite’ to bring his creation to life.

Moved by the sculptor’s love for his creation, Aphrodite granted his wish. The sculptor married his creation, and gave birth to their daughter Paphos.

The Pygmalion Effect Classroom Experiment:

To study the Pygmalion effect on humans, Dr. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson applied the idea on the teacher’s expectations of their students, and in what ways— it can influence a student’s performance.

When this research began, the teachers were told that the researchers have tested the IQ of the students. In which they found that one-fifth of their students, who were considered to be academically weak have fared well in the IQ test.

The teachers were confidentially told that, these students were not only exceptionally intelligent, but will soon outperform others.

However, in reality, the IQ test was never conducted, and the gifted students were chosen randomly for the authenticity of the experiment. The researchers didn’t label other students as unintelligent or weak, but denoted them as the ‘control group.’

After a year or so, when Dr. Rosenthal and Jacobson monitored the growth, and results of the students through an IQ test.

They found out that, both groups had shown improvement. But the group that was labelled as— having higher IQ had surpassed the other group, by gaining more IQ points than them.

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The Pygmalion Effect or Rosenthal Effect flow chart with teacher and student example

Why did the randomly picked higher IQ students performed better than the control group:

The reason behind the success of the alleged higher IQ group was the positive expectations of their teachers. Due to which, they gave more attention to those kids either consciously or unconsciously.

They strongly believed that those students were gifted, and only needed healthy motivation, and guidance to realise their true potential.

Although, the students were unaware of the experiment. However, since teachers had more expectations from the higher IQ level group. They paid more attention to that selective group, gave positive feedback to them, and were more patient with them.

This increased the student’s participation in the classroom study. As they slowly became aware of their teacher’s high expectations with them.

Therefore, they paid more attention to the lecture delivered, and took their teacher’s advice seriously.

As a result of which, the collective awareness of the alleged higher IQ students increased in the class. Because they were overwhelmed with the warm, and friendly aura created by the teachers, which helped them to engage more in the class.

What does Dr. Rosenthal say about the Pygmalion Effect in the Classroom:

Dr. Rosenthal explains that nobody wants to put their efforts in the wrong direction. This is true for teachers too, who like giving their attention to students who are eager to learn, and show great results.

This is why teachers don’t want to waste their time and efforts on students, who are disinterested in studying, and show lack of interest in the class.

Dr. Rosenthal points out that— weak students can be motivated to perform better, if their teachers have positive expectations for them.

Teachers who believe in the abilities of a student make frequent eye contact with him, and teaches more material to him. They build a favourable environment for that student to open up, give frequent opportunities to that student to evolve, and also prioritises his queries.

They set their level of expectation with that student, that he will do well in that particular subject or field.

On the other hand, poor teachers always complain, get baffled when students raise questions, and use their power to exploit the abilities of students by discouraging them.

Pygmalion Effect on Lab Rats:

Before this experiment, Rosenthal and his team did preliminary research on animals, to study the Pygmalion effect on them. In this study, the rats were randomly put into two groups called “maze dull” and “maze bright.”

When these rats were given to the students, they were told that the rats from the maze dull group couldn’t properly negotiate the maze, while the latter could easily do it.

When the study was over, the maze bright rats showed greater results. As they appeared to have learned faster.

Since the students believed that the maze-bright rats were superior to the other group of rats. They had high expectations for them, and taught them techniques needed to solve the maze.

They also considered them tamer, and more easy to work with than the maze dull rats. Hence, they gave more time in teaching that group, while ignoring the other or paying less attention to the maze dull rats.

How parents and teachers can use Pygmalion Effect to boost the Performance of Children:

When learning about the Pygmalion Effect, the first thing that came into my mind was— this is why children whose parents motivate them, and have positive expectations for them do well in life.

Because they have a healthy level of self-efficacy, and confidence which is nurtured into them by their parent’s positive expectations.

Teachers tend to show more positive body language towards students they expect to be gifted. They may teach them more challenging material, offer more chances to ask questions, and provide personalized feedback.

As Carl Sagan quoted, “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”

The Pygmalion Effect or Rosenthal Effect on a child's mind

So here’s how you can use the Pygmalion effect to boost the performance of Children:

  • Never forecast failure in classroom. If you know a test or topic is difficult, tell your students that although the test is difficult but you are sure, that they will do well if they come prepared.
  • Establish high expectations, as students achieve more when faculty have high level of expectations set for them.
  • When you give difficult assignments to your students tell them, “I know you can do this.” If you know that your students aren’t ready for the assignment, help them and guide them to do it.
  • If your child is slow leaner don’t discourage him/her by taunting or making fun of his abilities. Because if you as a parent won’t believe in his abilities, nobody else will.

How does Pygmalion Effect work:

The reason why Pygmalion Effect works is— because in general, the one who is in charge, or has authority over the subordinate bodies, has the power to influence their behaviour by holding— positive or negative expectations from them.

These expectations act as a catalyst that influences the leaders to facilitate changes in the behaviour, either consciously or unconsciously.

For example: When a boss or manager has high expectations for his subordinate. He assigns important projects to his subordinates, imparts knowledge to him by giving helpful feedback, so his favourite employee can level up.

Such small changes in treatment by the leader promote learning and growth. Because that person knows that his boss, who has more experience than him has high expectations for him. Which in turn, boosts the morale of his employee, and motivates them to do better.

According to Dr. Rosenthal, the Pygmalion effect work as a self-fulfilling prophecy in cyclical order, as discussed below:

  1. People’s beliefs and expectations effect their actions towards others.
  2. Those actions then impact their beliefs, and expectations that others hold about themselves.
  3. Those beliefs then impact their performance.
  4. Thus, the initial belief, and expectations of others are verified.
  5. This then cycles back to 1, where the actions start to take the form of expectations set for them.

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Let’s learn about the Pygmalion Effect in Management:

The impact of one’s expectations on another person’s behaviour has long been studied, and recognised by physicians and behavioural scientists, and more recently by teachers.

However, the importance of managerial expectations for enhancing an individual, or group performance hasn’t been taken into consideration yet.

How Pygmalion effect can help in enhancing the performance of the employees. Let’s have a look at what case studies reveal:

  • More often the performance and career goals of the employee depend on— what the manager expects from them, and how he communicates with them.
  • A manager who always gives negative feedback to his employees, and treats them badly is less likely to get good performance from them. Because his employees feel they lack the potential, and have always failed to impress, or live up to the expectations of their manager.
  • Good managers create high-performance expectations, that challenge, and motivate their subordinates to fulfil the company’s target or goals.

How they do it:

  • By giving positive and helpful feedback, that encourages the subordinate to be efficient in their work.
  • Superior managers know how to build a work culture of mutual trust. They create a healthy environment where subordinates don’t feel discouraged to ask for help, or advice from their seniors.
  • An empowering leader, or manager focuses on the employee’s strengths to yield a better result, and high performance from his employee.
  • They do not micromanage, or have excessive control over the activities of the employees. Because they know giving freedom of thought, opinion, and ideas will help in building a growth inclusive environment.
  • A good manager is assertive, and has high hopes for himself, because of having a healthy level of self-efficacy. He/she is able to pass on the same to those they work with, which is known as mirroring.
  • Less effective managers more often fail to develop similar expectations as a result of which, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.

Point to Note:

It has been studied that subordinates more often appear to do– what they believe they are expected to do.

For example: If a leader thinks an employee is competent, she will treat him likewise. The leader might create opportunities for him to develop his competence, and give positive feedback to increase his performance graph.

This in turn benefits the authority figure, and the subordinate figure as well. Because when subordinate bodies observe that, the authority figure are competent and goal-driven, they support them, and are inspired by them.

Similarly, students who show interest in the class raise good questions, and give feedback to the teacher to create interesting lectures.

Pygmalion Effect’s study on Business Productivity:

To examine the effect of managerial expectations, an experiment was conducted by Alfred Oberlander manager of the Rockaway district office of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1961.

Alfred observed that, the outstanding insurance companies grew faster than the average or poor. Also, new insurance agents performed better in outstanding companies than in the average or poor, regardless of their sales aptitude.

Therefore, he decided to make the best use of the skills, and expertise of the superior agents by putting them into one group, and forming a unit of them.

So they can stimulate their performance, and those agents can then give the same stimulation, to the new salespersons by providing a challenging environment to them.

Alfred then assigned his six best agents to work with the best assistant manager, and the same number of average agents to work with an average assistant manager, and weaker agents to work with the least-able manager.

He then set a goal for the superior group, and asked them to produce two-thirds of the premium volume achieved by the company during the previous year.

He describes the results as Follows:

“Shortly after this selection, the people in the agency began referring to this select group as a ‘super-staff’ because they operated so well as a unit. Their production efforts over the first 12 weeks far surpassed our most optimistic expectations . . .”

“Thanks to this experiment, our overall agency performance improved by 40%, and remained constant.”

“From the success of this experiment we found that, people of sound ability can surpass their normal productive capacities. When the problems created by poor producers are eliminated.”

“In 1962 during the expansion of the company, we appointed another assistant manager, and assigned him a staff. We used the same concept, and arranged the agents once more according to their productive capacity.”

“The most capable assistant manager received the best group, thus playing strength to strength. Our agency’s overall production again improved by about 25% to 30%. So the staff arrangement remained in place until the end of the year.”

“In the year 1963, we found upon analysis that, there were so many agents with a potential of half a million dollars or more. Therefore, only one staff remained of those people, who were considered to have no chance of reaching the half-million-dollar mark.”

Although the productivity of the super-staff improved drastically, but the productivity of those in the lowest unit declined, and attrition among them increased.

The performance of the superior agents rose to meet their managers’ expectations, while that of the weaker ones declined as predicted.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies:

The average unit wasn’t affected much, and their productivity significantly increased when the district manager didn’t expect much from them.

This was because the assistant manager in charge of the unit refused to believe that— she and her team members were less capable than the manager, and the team members of the super staff.

She boosted the morale of her team members by telling them, that every person in the middle group had greater potential than those in the super staff. And could easily compensate the years of experience in selling insurance through their capabilities, and skills through which they can challenge, and outperform the super staff.

Hence, they were able to give a neck-to-neck competition to the super staff. Also, they were able to increase their productivity by a higher percentage than the super staff (although they didn’t attain the same profit margin of the super staff).

Also Read: The Benefits of Self-Acceptance and How to Practice it

What do we learn about Pygmalion Effect from this Experiment:

Since the manager of the average group had a strong self-image, it didn’t allow her to accept other’s opinions, and treatment of her as an average manager.

She refused to buy the idea that, she was less capable than the manager of the top group, or lacked any skills needed to produce the same result as the super staff.

Her high expectations with her allowed her to increase the self-efficacy of her team members through verbal persuasion. Therefore, she was able to transfer her own feelings of efficacy to her team members. Thereby, creating a mutual expectancy of high performance, and productivity.

Similar results were found when the same experiment was conducted at another office of the company.

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How to use the Pygmalion Effect to Increase Business Productivity:

Pygmalion Effect can be used to increase the productivity of a person, business, and can also to build leadership skills. This is why many business organisations, and educational institutions use it to attain their goals. Let’s learn how:

1. Acknowledge the Power of Expectations:

If you are a manager or a business owner, you must have positive expectations with your employees. As it can help to reinforce a healthy level of efficacy, which can make them believe in their abilities.

If we acknowledge the power of expectations, it will make us aware of— how our expectations can impact others either negatively or positively. Therefore, we’ll be conscious of our words and action, and will act responsibly.

If you aspire to become a leader and not a dictator, then you must identify the positive qualities of your subordinates, and how you can help them to hone their skills. Which you can do by either giving them reward, or compliment, when necessary.

If you discourage your employees, and treat them badly. Their self-confidence will decrease and, they will suffer from lack of enthusiasm.

So it’s up to you, the kind of result you want, and the kind of example you want to set for your team or employees.

2. Look for the Positive Traits:

I have seen many parents making the mistake of tagging their child as incompetent or weak in studies.

They go on and about—how their child is different from other siblings, and isn’t a Grade A student like them. When in reality that child is great at sports, and excels in it.

But that quality of his is often undermined, and not taken seriously. As parents believe it is just a hobby, and cannot be taken seriously.

As a result of which, they have poor or no expectations from that child, and treat him like a black sheep of the family.

This is why the child, who bears such partial treatment from their parents distances himself from them. As their toxic nature makes it difficult for him to trust his abilities, and skills.

After completing his schooling, they enrol him into an engineering college, where he becomes an average kid with average skills, and average presence in the campus, and at work.

Whenever he visits home, he feels alienated as he is still considered as the weakling of the family. Parents and relatives still compare him with his siblings, and how well they are at life, and how big fat pay check, they are bringing home.

Therefore, he feels like an outsider, who doesn’t fit in, and shows a lack of interest, develops personality issues as he thinks he isn’t good as others. As his self-image has been tarnished by his parents right from his childhood.

Some of you reading this might relate to it, as it is the grim reality of toxic families. This why it is important to identify positive traits in your children, so you don’t continue the same cycle.

Also Read: 15 Major Signs of Toxic Parents & How to Identify them

Importance of Identifying Positive Traits:

When you can complain a hundred times about your child’s grades, then try to give one positive remark about the skill he is gifted with, or good at. Because there’s something positive to celebrate in everybody.

If you identify that one positive trait, and motivate your child to work on it from the very beginning. Your child will take it up as a challenge, and will give his best shot. Because he knows his parents are happy with him, and are offering support where he needs it the most.

In A Childhood Memory of GoetheFreud wrote: “If a man has been his mother’s undisputed darling he retains throughout life the triumphant feeling, the confidence in success, which not seldom brings actual success with it.”

If we can identify and communicate about the positive traits of our children or employees, we may be able to lift our expectations of them.

This in turn can drive our expectations exponentially to reach their potential, which we couldn’t previously envisage.

The Pygmalion Effect or Rosenthal Effect

3. Create Challenges:

Creating a challenging environment pushes us to accomplish that task, and by doing so, we derive a sense of achievement from it.

When we achieve something, our brain releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone that acts as a motivator, and creates a sensation of pleasure. This is why, when we achieve something, we feel good.

Employees can be influenced to yield better results, if they are empowered to achieve ambitious goals. If they are challenged, they can produce better results, and can exceed not only yours but their expectations as well.

Therefore, if we set a target, that we feel might be above our expectations of them, and encourage them to achieve it. Then they will put their best efforts to achieve it. Because they don’t want to fail in your eyes, and want your expectations of them to be proven right.

Chinese e-commerce Mogul Jack Ma is a great example, who instead of having no technical background, and without writing a single code on his own went on to found Ali Baba, a multinational group.

Because he took it as a challenge, and believed in his project. The net worth of Jack Ma is US$51.5 billion as of 17 April 2021, and is growing exponentially since then.

4. Impact of Positive Voice:

Words have a lasting impact. It can either break you or make you, and when you have been a victim of verbal abuse it shatters your self-confidence, and the scars remain for years to come.

For example: When teachers, who have a prejudice for the average kid pitches him against a topper, or someone who they are fond of.

They express their lack of trust, and low expectations they have with the average kid by saying, “Can you try?”, “Will you be able to do this?”, and “I am not sure you can do this.”

Which discourages a child, as he accepts his teacher’s opinion of him, and believes he will fail miserably.

Don’t damage someone, and use your tongue to positively charge your students by identifying their strengths, and creating positive expectations for them.

In turn, this can influence our own actions, as you’ll start focusing on the positive attributes of your students. Thereby, creating a heightened level of expectation. Which can later turn into a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

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5. Provide Feedback:

Whether it’s a student, employee, or someone else, it is important to provide actionable feedback. Don’t be miser with your feedback, or ignore them, thinking— ‘What’s the point of giving a feedback”, and “Will someone Benefit from it or Not.”

Rather than dwelling on— What-ifs, it is important to at least give it a shot. So don’t let your expectations become a reality, give the person a chance to improve, develop, and prove you wrong.

A feedback becomes treasurable when it comes from your parents or loved ones.

When Thomas gave his mother the letter from his teacher, she kept mum for a while after reading it. She lied to him stating that— he couldn’t go to school because he was a genius and “the school is too small for him.”

In fact, the letter said Edison was “addled” and wouldn’t be allowed in school anymore.

After discovering the letter after his mother’s death, Edison wrote in his diary, “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.” Later in life, Edison said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

What we can learn from the Pygmalion Effect:

Pygmalion effect teaches us that our reality is negotiable, and can be manipulated by others on purpose or by accident.

What we achieve, how we think, act, and perceive our capabilities can be influenced by the expectations of those around us.

Those expectations may be the result of biased or irrational thinking. But they have the power to affect us, and change our future.

What we must understand is— that we cannot do anything just because someone expects us to do, and perform according to their expectations.

For example: When a child is pressurised by his parents to kill his passion in order to pursue their dreams of seeing him as an engineer or doctor.

Even when the child knows— that he lacks what it takes to commit in that field. He gives up his passion in the pursuit of an engineering college, where he becomes an underachiever, and fails to meet the overly high expectations of his parents.

Because when the bar of expectations is set too high, we often get discouraged to even try. This is why it is said that, stretch goals and high expectations are beneficial to a point.

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Let thy spirit be high in love. Namaste