Pygmalion Effect

Clever Hans

The Pygmalion effect, or ‘Rosenthal effect,’ is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. The effect is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved. By the Pygmalion effect, people internalize their positive labels, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the ‘golem effect,’ in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.

Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s first showed that, if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then the children’s performance was enhanced. This study supported the hypothesis that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectations of others, the ‘observer-expectancy effect.’ Rosenthal theorized that biased expectancies could affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies (predictions that directly or indirectly cause themselves to become true)

The idea behind the Pygmalion effect is that increasing the leader’s expectation of the follower’s performance will result in better follower performance. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regard to education and social class. Studies of the Pygmalion effect have been difficult to conduct. Results show a positive correlation between leader expectation and follower performance, but it is argued that the studies are done in an unnatural, manipulated setting. Scientists argue that the perceptions a leader has of a follower cause the Pygmalion effect. The leader’s expectations are influenced by their perception of the situation or the followers themselves. Perception and expectation may possibly be found in a similar part in the brain.

In Rosenthal’s now famous 1968 study, all students in a single California elementary school were given a disguised IQ. These scores were not disclosed to teachers. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20% of the school chosen at random) could be expected to be ‘intellectual bloomers’ that year, doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates. The bloomers’ names were made known to the teachers. At the end of the study, all students were again tested with the same IQ-test used at the beginning of the study. All six grades in both experimental and control groups showed a mean gain in IQ from before the test to after the test.

However, First and Second Graders showed statistically significant gains favoring the experimental group of ‘intellectual bloomers.’ This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations, particularly for the youngest children, can influence student achievement. Rosenthal believed that even attitude or mood could positively affect the students when the teacher was made aware of the ‘bloomers.’ The teacher may pay closer attention to and even treat the child differently in times of difficulty.

Rosenthal predicted that elementary school teachers may subconsciously behave in ways that facilitate and encourage the students’ success. When finished, Rosenthal theorized that future studies could be implemented to find teachers who would encourage their students naturally without changing their teaching methods.

The prior research that motivated this study was done in 1911 by psychologists regarding the case of Clever Hans, a horse that gained notoriety because it was supposed to be able to read, spell, and solve math problems by using its hoof to answer. Many skeptics suggested that questioners and observers were unintentionally signaling Clever Hans. For instance, whenever Clever Hans was asked a question the observers’ demeanor usually elicited a certain behavior from the subject that in turn confirmed their expectations. For example, Clever Hans would be given a math problem to solve, and the audience would get very tense the closer he tapped his foot to the right number, thus giving Hans the clue he needed to tap the correct number of times.

Teachers are also affected by the children in the classroom. Teachers reflect what is projected into them by their students. An experiment done 1969 submitted teachers to a classroom of children who had either been told to be attentive, or unattentive, to the teachers’ lecture. They found that teachers who were in the attentive condition would rate their teaching skills as higher. Similar findings in 1971 stated that when a teacher was preconditioned to classrooms as warm or cold, the teacher would start to gravitate towards their precondition.

In the workplace, leader expectations of the employee can also alter leader behavior. This behavior that is expressed toward an employee can affect the behaviors of the employee in favor of the leader’s expectations. The more an employee is engaged in learning activities, the higher the expectation is from the leader. In turn, the employee participates in more learning behavior. Leaders will show more leader behaviors such as leader-member exchange (trust, respect, obligation, etc.), setting specific goals, and allowing for more learning opportunities for employees, and giving employees feedback.

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