The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby others’ expectations of a target person affect the target person’s performance.
The Pygmalion effect is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved, or alternately, after the Rosenthal–Jacobson study.
Rosenthal and Jacobson, in their book, applied the idea to teachers’ expectations of their students affecting the students’ performance, a view that has been undermined by subsequent research (e.g., Raudenbush ).
More specifically, Rosenthal and Jacobson held that high expectations lead to better performance and low expectations lead to worse, both effects leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By the Pygmalion effect, the targets of the expectations internalize their positive labels, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly; a similar process works in the opposite direction in the case of low expectations.
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. The concept of stereotype threat could be considered an example of the Pygmalion effect, as it denotes a negative form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s study 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, called the observer-expectancy effect. Rosenthal argued that biased expectancies could affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies.
All students in a single California elementary school were given a disguised IQ test at the beginning of the study. 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. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s foundational study of the Pygmalion effect was criticized for both weak methodology and lack of replicability.
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.
Students’ views of teachers
Teachers are also affected by the children in the classroom. Teachers reflect what is projected into them by their students.
An experiment done by Jenkins and Deno (1969) submitted teachers to a classroom of children who had either been told to be attentive or inattentive, to the teachers’ lecture. They found that teachers who were in the attentive condition would rate their teaching skills as higher.
Similar findings by Herrell (1971) suggested that when a teacher was preconditioned to classrooms as warm or cold, the teacher would start to gravitate towards their precondition.
To further this concept, Klein (1971) did the same kind of study involving teachers still unaware of any precondition to the classroom but with the class full of confederates who were instructed to act differently during periods over the course of the lecture.
“Klein reported that there was little difference between students’ behaviors in the natural and the positive conditions.” In a more observational study designed to remove the likes of the Hawthorne effect, Oppenlander (1969) studied the top and bottom 20% of students in the sixth grade from a school that tracks and organizes its students under such criteria.
In the workplace
Leader expectations of the employee may 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. These factors were brought about by Rosenthal’s model of the Pygmalion effect.