In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who never liked a single living woman. One curious day, however, he fell in love with one for a first time–––thought it was only a wondrous female statue of his own creation. He treated the statue like a woman, hoping to no avail that it would someday turn into a woman of flesh and bone. Sometime after, the goddess of love took pity on him and turned the statue into a real woman. It is said that Pygmalion and the statue lived happily and even bore a child.
After hearing this seemingly random Greek myth, you may be wondering, what’s the point? Well, there’s a psychological phenomenon named after this exact storyline: the Pygmalion effect. This intriguing effect states that our expectations change our actions in a way that fulfills these expectations. Pygmalion expected the statue, a nonliving item, to be living, and it curiously happened. Similarly, our expectations and perceptions of others who may not initially meet our own standards will cause us to act in ways to change the person in order to fulfill our biased expectations. Positive expectations create a genuine positive influence, and vice versa. Let’s take Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s original study as an example.
A group of elementary students took an exam to measure their intelligence. Then, teachers at the school were informed of the students who showed unusually high potential in terms of academics. What they didn’t know, however, was that these students were randomly selected within the original group and that the initial test never occurred. After a period of time, however, the group of students that were falsely labeled as having “unusually high potential” actually performed better academically than the rest of the randomly selected students. Following this discovery, there have been many studies conducted to confirm the results.
This phenomenon can help us change our actions to create the best results possible for others and for us. For example, the Pygmalion effect means we should never predict failure. Having the mindset that a certain group will do bad on a test or a task will actually cause them to do worse. Complaining about people reinforces a negative mindset that can also affect the target audience negatively. Finally, we should have high expectations. Through the Pygmalion effect, we can ensure that our students perform as well as possible because of our mindset alone.
We often feel the need to be realistic or practical and see things how they are. However, twisting this mindset slightly can lead to surprisingly positive results. It’s fake it til you make it.