In 1968, Robert Rosenthal, a social psychology professor at Harvard University, and Lenore Jacobson, a primary school principal with 20 years experience, performed a spontaneous intelligence test on a primary school in San Francisco then randomly chose 20% of the students in one class. They then gave a list of the names of those students to the teachers and convinced them that they were “students with a high possibility of improving their intelligence and career success”. Eight months later, they performed the same intelligence test and found that the students on that list performed significantly better than other students on average. Not only that, but the score for the whole school was pulled up by those students. The most important factor was the expectations and encouragement from the teachers. This study proved that the expectations a teacher places on their students has a real effect on improving their grades.
The Pygmalion effect can be summarised as the phenomenon when a person’s efficiency or results improve due to the expectations and interests of another person.
The eponymous story is from Greek mythologies, regarding a sculptor named Pygmalion. After seeing many women be so immoral and vulgar, he could not see beauty in any women anymore. This led him to sculpt the most beautiful woman out of ivory instead. After finishing his sculpture, he gazed upon its face and instantly fell head over heels for it. Every day Pygmalion would caress, stroke and truly love “her”. However, being a statue it could not return his love and he grew sadder and sadder. He went to the Temple of Aphrodite and begged her to help him achieve his true love. Upon returning home, he kissed and touched the sculpture like any other day. And lo and behold, every part of the sculpture his hands touched turned from hard ivory to soft, clear skin and the sculpture eventually turned into a gorgeous lady. Thus, thanks to Aphrodite’s grace the two could live happily ever after in love.
The Pygmalion effect is extremely useful in everyday life. When parents and teachers believe that a child has talent, they spend more effort trying to grow that talent and the child ends up more successful. The simple task of showing interest to the child promotes optimism and the child works harder to meet those expectations. The child did not receive any extra compliments or rewards but their efficiency goes up regardless, thanks to their parents’ and teachers’ beliefs.
Similarly, when a boss shows passion towards and has great expectations of an employee, their efficiency will go up. The Pygmalion effect is particularly powerful in relationships, where if the two love each other and are good to each other, their love will naturally deepen and they will become happier.
Unfortunately, people have a tendency to underestimate the power of love and are unable to utilise this great effect. Therefore, children and employees are often plagued by the golem effect (the phenomenon of low expectations causing a fall in efficiency) instead.