The Pygmalion Effect


Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, one of the world’s leading providers of emotional intelligence tests and training, recently published a fascinating article on LinkedIn, Powerful Psychological Forces That Make Good People Do Bad Things.

In the article, he references the work of Dr. Muel Kaptein, Professor of Business Ethics and Integrity Management at the Rotterdam School of Management, who has studied bad behavior for decades. A study Dr. Kaptein published sheds considerable light on what motivates good people to do bad things. The article includes 14 of Dr. Kaptein’s most compelling findings into how the mind tricks good people into losing their moral compass and going astray.

I am not going to try and summarize the article, it is already in a summary format, and I highly recommend reading it.

However, I would like to focus on just one of the findings of Dr. Kaptein’s work, one which he refers to as the Pygmalion effect. Here is what the article had to say about this effect:

The Pygmalion effect refers to the tendency people have to act the way that other people treat them. For example, if employees are treated like they’re upright members of a team, they’re more likely to act accordingly. Alternately, if they’re treated with suspicion, they’re more likely to act in a way that justifies that perception.

I am sure that I was taught about the Pygmalion effect somewhere along the line, but I must admit that if someone were to ask me what it meant, I would have had no response. It almost seems like a version of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do onto you.”

Since the word “Pygmalion” is so unusual in and of itself, I decided to go out to Wikipedia and learn some more about it. Here is what it had to say:

The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. The effect is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy. By the Pygmalion effect, people internalize their positive labels, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly. The idea behind the Pygmalion effect is that increasing the leader’s expectation of the follower’s performance will result in better follower performance. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regard to education and social class.

It appears that this effect has been studied quite a bit, not only in the workplace but in the classroom as well, so I tried to think of ways that this effect has possibly played out in my classroom over the years.

I think many people who may observe my teaching approach and philosophy may consider it as being too lenient or easygoing, but I would argue that what I am trying to do is create an atmosphere of trust.

For example, when a student tells me that he is going to miss a test because there was a death in his family, I take him at his word, and do not ask him to bring in a copy of the obituary. This approach seems consistent with the idea behind the Pygmalion effect, since it seems that by treating students as honest students, they will act accordingly.

Another example deals with the way I administer my tests. I have no problem leaving the classroom during a test for a few minutes. Again, this is a direct result of my desire to have built an culture of trust between myself and the students, and so by the time the first test comes around, I feel comfortable doing so. (It also helps that I teach in a classroom that has a full glass wall on one side and is right next to a heavily trafficked area.) However, I should point out that if I do happen to see someone acting suspiciously during a test, I do not hesitate to let that person know, and to keep a closer eye on that individual for the remainder of the test.

I also tell my students early on that I know how difficult it is to get into Villanova, and that I am aware that all of them had outstanding academic records in high school and strong SAT scores. I then tell them that I don’t expect things to change dramatically once they begin college, and as a result I fully expect such outstanding performances to continue in college. Again, this seems consistent with the Pygmalion effect.

But I will also admit that there is room for improvement, particularly with respect to how I should set expectations, and how I communicate such expectations to my students.

Overall though, I am excited by the prospect of being able to use such a high-brow term as the “Pygmalion effect” when someone asks me about my teaching philosophy.

I just hope that there isn’t some competing theory out there that completely discredits it, but if there is, when cognitive dissonance kicks in (another one of the 14 traits that Dr. Kaptein mentions in his research), I’ll just let my confirmation bias solve the problem for me.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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