The Pygmalion effect

The Pygmalion effect

Do you know what the  Pygmalion effect? Have you wonder how can the beliefs other people have about us alter our behaviour? Can favourable expectations from our friends and the people who love us take us further than we thought we could go? And on the contrary, how often have we just not tried to do something, or done it badly from the simple fear of failure others have inculcated in us, from their lack of trust, or their invitation to resignation and abandonment?

It is nothing fanciful to say that every day of our lives we do certain things because we’re responding, consciously or unconsciously, to what those around us expect of us, for good or for bad. Expectations could come from your friends, your partner, your boss and even your children. What other people expect of you can set off a chain of acts that take you way beyond what you would have expected, both in positive and negative ways. The principle that we behave in response to others’ beliefs and expectations is known in psychology as the Pygmalion effect.

The strange name comes from the legend of Pygmalion, King of Cyprus in ancient times and a talented sculptor. Ovid recreated the myth in his “Metamorphoses”. Pygmalion, he tells, was a passionate sculptor who lived on the Isle of Crete. One day, inspired by the lovely Galatea, he carved a marble statue so beautiful he fell deeply in love with it, so deeply that he begged the gods to give life to her so that he could love her as a real woman. Venus decided to give him his wish and gave life to the sculpture, who became the lover and companion Pygmalion so desired. His expectation and desire became a reality.

As the legend tells, the Pygmalion Effect is the process by which beliefs and expectations one person holds about another can affect the latter’s behaviour that he or she will be driven to confirm them. A good illustration of the Pygmalion Effect was given by George Bernard Shaw in his 1913 novel “Pygmalion”, based on the myth and later made into the film “My Fair Lady” by George Cukor in 1964. In the film, narcissistic professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) ends up falling in love with his creation, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) when he manages to turn a shabby, illiterate girl into a woman moulded to his phonetic, ethical and aesthetic expectations.

Different specialists in psychology, economics, medicine and sociology have carried out very interesting research on the existence of the Pygmalion Effect and the power it has. Perhaps one of the best-known of these was carried out by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackson. Known as “Pygmalion in the classroom”, the study consisted in informing a group of primary school teachers that their students had been given a test to evaluate their intellectual skills. Then, the teachers were told which of the students had obtained the highest scores. They were also told to expect better performance from these students. And so it happened. Eight months later the school year came to an end, and the “special” students had much better marks than all the rest. Nothing strange so far, right? But the interesting thing about the study is that the initial test was never actually given. The supposedly brilliant students were a randomly-picked 20% of the children, whose skills and abilities were actually not taken into account at all. So what had happened? How could a set of normal students have become the best of their groups by the end of the year? Simple: Rosenthal and Jacobson’s observations during the year showed that the teachers had created such high expectations on the students that they behaved in order to fulfil them. Somehow, the teachers had behaved in such a way that their perceptions of the students translated into individualised teaching practices that encouraged each student to confirm what they’d been told would happen.

Many other similar studies have been done in recent years, and have tended to confirm the existence of the effect. Simple common sense would be enough to confirm it anyway. What someone tells you about a person doubtlessly predisposes you to treat them in a certain way.

Another interesting case happened at a well-known multinational manufacturer of cutting edge technological products. The Personnel Department called one of the company’s cleaning staff, someone right at the bottom of the ladder who had not even finished his schooling, and told him that he, among all the thousands of company employees, was the best-fitted for a highly responsible technical position and that he’d be given all the means and support possible by the company. The ethical considerations of the procedure would give a lot to think about, but as it happened, the man not only went on to do the job he’d been promised in less time than expected; he also carried on moving up in the organisation for years, and was an extremely charismatic and well-loved worker within his area. The prophecy once again came true, at extraordinarily speed and very successfully, more so than the inventors of the experiment could have imagined.

In effect, imagining an event will encourage it to happen. This is the case in many areas of life. In scientific and social investigation, specialists often tend to confirm their own hypotheses, however outlandish; there will always be one piece of data to fit any theory. In economics, the Pygmalion effect took hold on a large scale in the financial crisis of 1929. If thousands of people are convinced the economic system is going to fail, then it will. Even in the area of health, the Pygmalion Effect is manifested in the well-known Placebo Effect. People will believe they’re getting the treatment they need when all it is is a neutral sugar pill with no active principles in it. So how can a harmless sweet cure anyone? Simply because the doctor said so. Because someone they believe in is telling them it will cure them, and because they want to be cured.

And of course, to go back to the myth –Pygmalion also goes to work in love. Matchmakers have managed to cause heated passions between people who at first seemed not to have any chemistry. Sometimes it’s enough just for the matchmaker in question to whisper into their victim’s ear and insinuate that the other person wants them in order for their gaze and body language to radically change their expression and encourage an approach.

If you look at the lives of great geniuses, women and men who have made huge contributions to humankind in areas such as science, art, sport, business, and so on, you’ll see that there was often a person in their lives who placed strong expectations on them, without whom the geniuses’ life would probably have taken a radically different path.

Pygmalion has a scientific explanation: we know now that when someone trusts in us, and transmits that trust to us, our limbic system speeds up our thinking, increases our clarity of thought, gives us more energy, and thus boosts our concentration, efficiency and effectiveness.

Prophecies tend to become true when they’re strongly wished for. Just as fear tends to make what we’re afraid of happen, trust in ourselves, even if it’s passed on by someone else, can give us wings.

PS. A fun exercise.

Some applications of the Pygmalion Effect are quite funny. Try this one now: tickle yourself in the ribs. There’s no way you’ll ever get a laugh out of it. You can’t tickle yourself because you know beforehand where you’re going to do it. Without the surprise factor or any kind of wish, our brain anticipates and cancels it out. The Pygmalion Effect comes to nothing. But if someone you like tells you they’re going to tickle you but not where, you’ll giggle with joy. Because in the end, just like the beautiful Galatea, we’re not made of stone.


Álex Rovira


Alex Rovira