The Pygmalion Effect

5 Mar

If you believe it, it will happen.
This is the core of what is known as the “Pygmalion Effect”, or self-fulfilling prophesy. When we think positively and have positive expectations, we will receive these positive outcomes. The same goes for negative thinking. If you believe that you will fail a test, it’s no coincidence that you will fail the test. More in terms of the “Pygmalion” aspect of this phenomenon, it is especially true for our expectations of others, as they will influence and ultimately become that person’s belief and result. People pick up on these other’s expectations of themselves through certain cues, whether through verbal or non-verbal communication. This latter effect was inspired by Ovid’s Greek myth. Pygmalion, the Prince and sculptor of Cyprus, created an ivory statue of his “ideal woman”, naming her Galatea. His mind was filled with the fact that she was perfect and he soon fell in love with her, so much that he asked Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, to bring her to life. The Goddess granted him this wish and the two got married, living happily ever after. The Pygmalion effect comes into play as Pygmalion had expected the perfect woman, and indeed received one.

The Pygmalion Effect

This motif has also made an appearance in modern art and literature. George Bernard Shaw adapted this myth into a famous play, of which the plot is about a professor who believes he can transform a low-class flower girl into a high-class duchess. In this case, Professor Henry Higgins adopts the role of ‘Pygmalion’ and the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, adopts the role of ‘Galatea’, the statue. However, there are considerable differences between the characters in the play and in the myth. Firstly, Higgins’ intentions for ‘creating’ the woman differ to Pygmalion’s. Higgins’ changes a woman for selfish reasons, while Pygmalion does it out of love and desire. In the end, in context of the play, Eliza claims independence whereas in the myth, the two become a happy couple.

This phenomenon has also caught the attention of those in the realm of science. Fascinated by this effect, many psychologists have put it to the test. A common example could be observed in teacher’s expectations of their students. A famous study was done by Rosenthal & Jacobson (1968) on elementary school students, who first had to complete an IQ test at the beginning of the school year. Teachers were then deceived into thinking certain students (chosen at random) were more likely to succeed academically than others. After a few months, the students were then re-tested and those that were allotted as more capable than others had significantly higher results compared to their pre-test. Of course, the teachers had not communicated (verbally) which students they considered to have more potential than the others. It was more likely to be implied through body language, which the students must have picked up on, even if subconsciously. Thus, it is clear that the teachers influenced the children’s beliefs, causing some to have lower expectations of themselves and others to have higher ones. This supports the theory that expectations become reality; when a student is expected to excel, s/he will most probably do so.



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