The Pygmalion Effect–The Importance of Expectations

“Well, at least I received a fairly high rating on “encouragement,” I thought as I glanced at the “Trainer Observation Form” that my supervisor on my new, very part-time job handed me a few days ago.  She had been taking notes discretely on my performance during my 3rd training session with a student (as a cognitive skills trainer).  Although I felt good that I had been encouraging to the student, it was disheartening to see some other areas that fell in the column “needs improvement.”  My supervisor did say that the “needs improvement” areas were pretty normal for a beginning trainer, but it was still slightly de-motivating to receive the somewhat negative feedback. 

Reflecting on my feelings a few days later, I considered the influence of expectations and feedback on performance.  If I have high expectations of someone (or even myself), my feedback tends to accentuate the positives and downplay the negatives, which usually results in a desire to improve performance.  On the other hand, if I have low expectations, my feedback tends to focus more on the negatives and performance typically suffers.  A performance rating doesn’t just sum up the past; it can affect or determine the future.

Expectations can inspire excellence or destroy drive.  Expectations can change reality.

People tend to live up or down to our expectations, changing into what we expect them to be.  This effect is often called the Pygmalion Effect.  Pygmalion was a sculptor in Greek mythology who didn’t much care for women, but fell in love with a statue of a woman he had carved out of ivory.  Aphrodite, the goddess of love, took pity on him and brought the statue to life.  Early last century (1913), George Bernard Shaw wrote the play, Pygmalion  about the phonetics professor, Henry Higgins who bets he can turn flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a refined lady.  My Fair Lady was the hit musical based on the play.

The effect is not only popular in fiction, but also has been the study of several experiments.  In one well-known experiment conducted by psychologist Robert Rosenthal, the effect was found to occur in classrooms.

At the U.S. Air force Academy Preparatory School, 100 airmen were randomly assigned to five different math classes.  Each teacher was told that his or her students had unusually high or low ability.  Students in the classes labeled “high-ability” improved much more in math scores than those in “low-ability” classes.  Yet, initially, all of the classes had students of equal ability.

So, how do we manage and harness the power of expecations?  How do we convey expecations? Rosenthal’s Four-Factor theory, described in the training video, Pygmalion Effect:  Managing the Power of Expectations (CRM Films), identifies climate, input, output and feedback as the factors used to convey expectations.

This short (1:38)  promo for the video has a couple of positive and negative scenarios:

We teach more to those from whom we expect more.  We are able to give them more information so that they are, in fact, able to do a better job –Robert Rosenthal, Psychologist

CLIMATE: is the non-verbal mood created by the person holding the expectation (for positive expectations this would be body language such as sustained eye contact, leaning closer, nodding and smiling).

INPUT: More information is provided to those of whom more is expected.

OUTPUT: more responsiveness is encouraged from those of whom more is expected.  This encouragement can be verbal (“tell me more,” “help me understand your position,” etc.) or non-verbal (e.g., holding a palm out to encourage response).

FEEDBACK:   The quantity of feedback (more praise, less criticism) and the quality of feedback (more detailed) is greater for those of whom more is expected.

Have great expectations for the people around you and “act as if” for as Goethe said, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”  Now, if I can only remember to apply that lesson to myself and to those around me!


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

One Response to The Pygmalion Effect–The Importance of Expectations

  1. Pingback: Top Hits: My 2010 Wordpress Stats Summary « Small Talk, Big Results

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