The Pygmalion effect is real and beneficial

by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR
President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System

What you think will happen, happens. People bring their own weather. Expecting a certain result increases the chance of that outcome. Self-fulfilling prophecies become realities. This phenomenon known as the Pygmalion Effect is the power of creating positive expectations.

The Pygmalion Effect is named for the Greek myth of Pygmalion, sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved. George Bernard Shaw’s musical, “My Fair Lady, “transforms a common flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a proper English lady with some training, but more important, by changing expectations for Eliza. In a classic, often recounted, controversial, and initially challenged California study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, elementary school teachers were told at the beginning of the school year that their classes were filled with specific “intellectual bloomers.”

Namely, some students would do better than expected compared to their classmates. But the students were picked randomly, unbeknownst to their teachers. Pre- and post-IQ testing showed improvement in most all of the students, with those pre-identified as “intellectual bloomers” showing greater improvements. In particular, the youngest children—first and second graders—showed the most improvement.

In this case, teachers were prejudiced to think positively about certain students, so the chemistry between student and teacher perhaps became enriched to the benefit of both. Is the inverse also true? Namely, would a student identified as slow also experience a self-fulfilling prophesy and now sadly not live up to his/her potential? The teachers involved with the study, when told about the random selections of their students, felt angry and betrayed.

This initial, extraordinary storm of controversy continued over decades. Many of the underprivileged children had a new lease on life as their IQ scores increased 27 points. The ill-fated results of an earlier Harvard study propagated the belief that IQ was inherited and unalterable.

Fortunately, the American dream—that we can all live up to our potential, which can be grown—is now applied throughout many schools. Having every student maximize his/her potential helps in many good ways. Higher achieving students stimulate others around them to soar higher. Whole classrooms, with their teachers’ help, expand their expectations, creating positive feedback and a virtuous cycle of achievement.

Inversely, lowering expectations is also self-fulfilling. Dumbing down a curriculum, anticipating a student “won’t get it,” or discouraging an enthusiastic teacher with low systemic expectations makes things worse for everyone, thus creating a vicious cycle of despondency. One major caveat surfaces. The teachers cannot know that the student picks are random.

For whatever reason, subconsciously the teachers have to believe their students are ready to bloom. If the teachers know the bloomers are randomly selected, the results are not reproducible. So, how can this Pygmalion Effect be put to good use? Social reformers would like to use the Pygmalion effect to help disadvantaged groups. Coaches would like their players to believe they have the ability to improve their games. Military leaders are constantly training recruits to use new technology to become more effective. Industry educators always have room for better trained and motivated colleagues.

Again, the problem is that the teachers, reformers, coaches, leaders, and educators cannot know that their “high potential” candidates are randomly chosen. When carefully observed, instructors’ non-verbal communication is telling—subconsciously altered when interacting with the “high potential” people.

By video-taping instructors, the nuance of their non-verbal behavior became apparent. When shown videos of themselves, teachers were astounded by their different behavior depending on whether they were interacting with a “high potential” or normal student. And this interaction—comprised of vocal tone, facial expressions, posture, and gestures—is significant, making up the bulk of human expression, or about 80 percent, according to many experts.

Can teachers, reformers, coaches, and leaders treat all of their charges as high performers? The answer is “yes “for successful classrooms, populations, sports teams, and companies. Military service has groups of elite warriors who act as high performers, thus perpetuating their reputation for competence. Sports teams build self-confidence, improving results. Even sports revolving around single players. tennis, golf, and boxing, receive huge benefits when designated as “high performing. “National educational data has shown that, all else being equal, “10th-grade students who had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students whose teachers had lower expectations.” This according to “The Power of the Pygmalion Effect” by Ulrich Boser, Megan Wilhelm and Robert Hanna.

As the controversy continued for decades, the original researcher, Rosenthal, along with different colleagues, drilled down on four factors that could help explain how teachers ‘expectations influence special students: (1) climate—extending more friendliness and warmth; (2) input—devoting more energy; (3) output—recognizing more often for answers; and(4) feedback—responding more fully. Bias matters. Having a fixed gaze and raised eyebrows indicates attentiveness versus having a wondering gaze and bored expression.

Partaking in a conversation makes everyone more productive with a better outcome. Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-dynamic, digital social environment, interacting can become exhausting. However, to nurture students or any other particular group, the following are essential: become engaged mentally, stay optimistic, and telegraph non-verbal signals about positive outcomes. Performance matters.

The degree of encouragement and attentiveness we give to each other, from youngsters in elementary school to senior leaders, has a greater influence on achievement than we realize. Staying positive, bringing good “weather,” and showing positive non-verbal signs as we communicate all have the dual benefits of serving those we want to help and subsequently basking in their success. The Pygmalion effect is real and beneficial.

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