Expecting a certain outcome makes it more likely to happen
Research shows that the mere expectation of a certain outcome increases the likelihood that it will happen.
For example, the simple reminder that memory tends to decline with age makes elderly people perform worse in memory tests.
It is quite amazing that it doesn’t take more to influence our mind. But the good news is that it can be used to our advantage too! The effect can be both positive and negative.
The phenomenon where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance has been labelled the Pygmalion Effect (or the Rosenthal effect after a study by Robert Rosenthal).
How the the Pygmalion Effect works
The Pygmalion Effect is a self-fulfilling prophecy that works as a circular mechanism:
- Other people’s beliefs about us influence their actions toward us.
- Their actions towards us influence and reinforce our beliefs about ourselves
- Our beliefs about ourselves influence our actions toward others
- Our actions toward others impact other people’s beliefs about us.
And then back to 1.
This circular mechanism can be influenced at all four stages but the Pygmalion Effect focuses on the effect of other people’s expectations and how the mechanism reinforces the effect of these expectations.
Inducing confidence in children can make them into superstars
The Pygmalion Effect can be a force for both good and bad. Here’s an example of how high expectations improve performance.
An experiment of the effect of expectations went like this:
- The intelligence of a group of children in elementary school was tested.
- The teachers were presented with the results of these tests and told which students had the biggest potential for growing into “superstars”. We’ll call them Karl and Suzanne.
- The teachers were then told not to mention the results of the tests to the children and not to treat Karl and Suzanne any different than they did before the experiment started. The teachers were even told that they would be observed to make sure that no differential treatment was taking place.
- At the end of the school year the children were tested again. The tests showed that Karl and Suzanne did WAY better than the rest. No surprise there! Or..?
- Yes, because there’s a twist. Actually Karl and Suzanne were not the high scorers of the first test with the biggest academic potential. There were completely average. The researchers had lied to teachers about the test results.
- So what had caused them to outperform the other kids at the second test at the end of the year?
- The teachers had not “cheated” and told them about the (fake) results or spend more time with Karl and Suzanne than they did with the rest of the kids.
- The explanation given in the study is that the belief the teachers had in the children made the difference - an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two things had happened. Firstly, the belief the teachers had in the students’ had been nonverbally communicated to the children (through for example body language). Secondly, these nonverbal messages were subconsciously picked up by Karl and Suzanne and transformed into improved performance and eventually higher test results.
This is really an astonishing finding. Basically it is an example of how to use subconscious mind power to improve and develop skills that many would think were completely determined by more “objective” factors.
Negative implications of the Pygmalion Effect: Unjustified expectations end up becoming real
The importance of expectations also implies that “false” or unjustified expectations can have a significant impact.
A study from the American National Center for Education Statistics shows that teacher expectations of students are a better predictor or their performance than other factors such as the students’ motivation and efforts.
The study concludes:
- Secondary teachers have lower expectations to colored students and students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.
- The teachers expected that high-poverty students were 53 percent less likely to earn a college diploma than students with a more advantageous background.
- They also believed that African American and Hispanic students were 47 and 42 percent less likely to graduate from college than white students.
But the mechanism also works the other way around and can have a positive effect:
- High school students whose teachers have higher expectations about their performance and future success are far more likely to graduate from college.
Of course, part of the expectations and beliefs might simply reflect the students’ different levels of academic skills. In other words, there is no doubt a methodological issue with cause/effect. But for this reason the study above (“Inducing confidence in children can make them into superstars”) controlled for the academic level of students and reached the same conclusion that teachers expectations have a significant effect on student performance.
So remember that your expectations to the people around you can have a real effect on their beliefs about themselves and consequently their performance.
The origin of the concept: The Greek myth of Pygmalion
The phenomenon that higher expectations result in better performance is sometimes referred to as the “Pygmalion Effect”. The name is inspired by the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with one of his statues.
Pygmalion quietly wished for a woman who could live up to the expectations of the ideal he had carved out of ivory and his wish and high expectations were granted when one day he kissed the statue and it came to live.
- Center for American Progress: The Power of the Pygmalion Effect
- Wikipedia: Pygmalion effect
- Image from theinsideouteffect.com
The Happiness Advantage
Read more about the Pygmalion effect and how higher expectations can improve performance in the book “The Happiness Advantage” by Harvard graduate Shawn Achor. You can also read insights about how to increase your happiness and well-being.
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