In the story told by the Roman poet Ovid, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created. George Bernard Shaw borrowed the theme for his play “Pygmalion”—later turned into the musical “My Fair Lady”—in which Professor Henry Higgins makes over the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, becoming besotted with her even as he teaches her how to speak proper English (“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain . . . “).
Psychologists, too, have picked up the motif, researching what they call the “Pygmalion effect”: the finding, as social psychologist Robert Rosenthal puts it, “that what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Rosenthal and his coauthor Lenore Jacobson coined the term to describe the striking results of an experiment they carried out in a California school in 1965.
Students took a test that was said to be able to identify “growth spurters,” or those who were poised to make strides academically. Teachers were given the names of pupils who were about to bloom intellectually—and sure enough, these students showed a significantly greater gain in performance over their classmates when tested again at the end of the year.
But here’s the thing: the “spurters” were actually chosen at random. The only difference between them and their peers, Rosenthal writes, “was in the mind of the teacher.” And yet the expectations held in the mind of the teacher—or the parent, or the manager, or the coach—can make an enormous difference. Research conducted since Rosenthal and Jacobson’s original study has determined that the Pygmalion effect applies to all kinds of settings, from sports teams to the military to the corporate workplace.
Just how do elevated expectations promote greater achievement? It’s not some magical act of inspiration. Rather, Rosenthal and others have found that higher expectations lead teachers (or other authority figures) to act differently in regard to the learner, in four very specific ways:
1. They create a warmer “socioemotional climate” for the learners they regard as high-potential, often conveying this warmth through non-verbal signals: a nod, an encouraging smile, a touch on the shoulder.
2. They teach more material, and more difficult material, to learners they see as especially promising.
3. They give up-and-coming learners more opportunities to contribute, including additional time to respond to questions.
4. They offer their “special” learners feedback on performance that is more detailed and more personalised—not just a generic “Good job.”
It can be difficult to deliberately change our expectations of others. But we can consciously change our behaviour. By adopting the set of behaviours above, we’ll be acting like our kids, our students or our employees have great potential—potential that they’ll more than likely live up to.
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