What Is the Pygmalion Effect? | Definition & Examples
The Pygmalion effect refers to situations where high expectations lead to improved performance and low expectations lead to worsened performance. Although the Pygmalion effect was originally observed in the classroom, it also has been applied to in the fields of management, business, and sports psychology.
The Pygmalion effect is also known as the Rosenthal effect, after the researcher who first observed the phenomenon.
What is the Pygmalion effect?
The Pygmalion effect is a psychological term used to describe the impact of positive or negative expectations on the performance of an individual or a group. It introduces bias into your research.
The underlying idea is that when a leader, authority figure, or role model believes we can succeed in a certain area, we will work hard to meet their expectations. This also implies that we do better when more is expected of us.
The Pygmalion effect has both academic and practical implications. For example, if a manager believes in the abilities of their team, the team will outperform one whose manager believes the opposite, even if the two teams are equally skilled.
Similarly, if a researcher has high expectations that patients assigned to the treatment group will succeed, these patients may have better outcomes than the control group. In this example, the Pygmalion effect takes the form of (unconscious) researcher bias.
How the Pygmalion effect works
The Pygmalion effect demonstrates the power expectations have in shaping behaviour.
This effect occurs because we tend to internalise the labels others place upon us. We try to conform to those labels, whether positive or negative.
The Pygmalion effect works in a circular fashion:
- Others’ expectations about us influence their behaviour towards us.
- Their behaviour towards us influences how we see ourselves.
- How we see ourselves impacts our own behaviour.
- Our behaviour towards others influences their beliefs, reinforcing their expectations.
In other words, someone else’s high expectations for our performance doesn’t only impact how we act, but also how they act.
To apply this, let’s take the example of a teacher. A teacher’s expectations on students are conveyed in four ways:
Climate refers to the atmosphere created by the person who holds the expectation, in this case a teacher. This is often communicated nonverbally, perhaps by smiling and nodding or making eye contact. These cues can create a friendly and positive climate.
Feedback refers to the type of response the teacher gives to students. High-expectation students will likely receive more praise and more detailed feedback.
Input refers to the effort or energy the teacher invests. Some teachers tend to invest more time and effort in high-expectation students (e.g., by providing them with more difficult material).
Output refers to the tendency for teachers to call on “good” students more often, or encourage them to be more responsive.
Examples of the Pygmalion effect
The Pygmalion effect can explain how people perform in a variety of contexts.
In the context of education, the Pygmalion effect illustrates that teachers run the risk of only getting from students what they expect from them.
Different expectations usually lead to different treatments, even when this occurs unintentionally.
Why is the Pygmalion effect important?
The Pygmalion effect has implications in various contexts:
- Although this mechanism is mostly unconscious, it can also be used to intentionally enable other people’s development, like students, employees, or athletes. Coaches, for example, who let athletes know that they expect more of them can lead them to greater achievement as athletes.
- Being aware of the Pygmalion effect can help people in leadership positions realise how their attitude and expectations of their subordinates can affect them. A leader’s bias can influence their expectations of others and impose unfair or stereotypical labels on them.
- The Pygmalion effect can also affect entire groups and organizations. For example, it can shape the climate in entire departments, creating a culture of low expectations, or the opposite.
Other types of research bias
Frequently asked questions about the Pygmalion effect
- What is the observer-expectancy effect?
- What is the definition of observer bias?
- How can I minimise observer bias in my research?
You can use several tactics to minimise observer bias.
- Use masking (blinding) to hide the purpose of your study from all observers.
- Triangulate your data with different data collection methods or sources.
- Use multiple observers and ensure inter-rater reliability.
- Train your observers to make sure data is consistently recorded between them.
- Standardise your observation procedures to make sure they are structured and clear.
- What is an interviewer effect?
The interviewer effect is a type of bias that emerges when a characteristic of an interviewer (race, age, gender identity, etc.) influences the responses given by the interviewee.
There is a risk of an interviewer effect in all types of interviews, but it can be mitigated by writing really high-quality interview questions.
Sources for this article
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