The Pygmalion Effect: ‘Be what (someone else thinks) you wanna be!’

While the Pygmalion effect sounds like a #cute and #disturbing snapchat filter, the term actually refers to the social phenomenon whereby a belief in someone causes them to act in accordance with that belief.

Remember Harry’s mortal fear of being deemed a Slytherin by the all-knowing Sorting Hat? Was it only being labelled ‘Gryffindor’ that ensured he wasn’t a pre-teen monster? And what about poor Neville? He could have been the lightning-scarred hero of the day had Voldemort decided that he was the chosen one!

The Pygmalion effect is arguably a phenomenon unique to humans, with nothing similar observed in any other species. Perhaps this is because humans are innately social creatures, with complex and active social lives. Of course, we aren’t the only animals that lead complex social lives, but we do appear to be the only ones for whom our beliefs can change our social reality, and the social reality of those around us.

The name is based on an epic Latin poem Metamorphoses written by the Roman poet Ovid. Pygmalion is a sculptor who is so disgusted by seeing a group of young female sex workers in Cyprus that he swears off all women. Perhaps taking his cue from the popular and reasonable men’s rights activists of today, he carves his ideal woman out of ivory. He falls in love with his own work, and prays to Aphrodite for a woman just like his precious statue. Flattered by its apparent likeness to herself, Aphrodite brings the statue to life. The moral of the story is: what you project onto others, they may well become.

The majority of research into the Pygmalion effect has been in the business field, particularly management, and has shown that an employee’s success may be directly related to the company or manager’s expectations of them. If you give a manager a glowing endorsement of a dud, they treat the dud as if they’re great: give them a corner office, full colour photocopier privileges, make them leader of the free world. Being treated like they’re employee of the month improves their work enough to, hopefully, avert nuclear war with North Korea.

Similarly, research in school settings has shown that a teacher’s expectations of a student can influence how well that student actually performs. If they’re not aware of the effect, a teacher may treat students they expect to do well in ways that help them do just that. So, listen up helicopter parents — following your harried child’s teacher around whispering “Arizona is a gifted child, Arizona is a gifted child” is perhaps a better predictor of poor Arizona’s test performance than say, their natural ability and/or effort!

There is also evidence for the flipside of this idea — that a teacher’s negative expectations of a child can disadvantage that child. In 1982, this became known as the Golem effect, a golem being a clay creature in Jewish mythology which, though intended to protect Jewish people, was corrupted and had to be destroyed. You may have experienced the Golem effect in school, where hanging out with the cool kids too long made your grades drop, even though your own behaviour or aptitude didn’t change at all.

The Pygmalion/Golem effect is not an entirely new notion though. Indeed, it was sociologist Robert Merton who, in 1948, introduced the now common concept of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Merton saw that African-Americans weren’t allowed to join unions because they were seen as strike-breakers. Of course, not being part of a union meant they had to take any work they could find — which often included work that became available because white workers were on strike. Great work team! Way to self-fulfil that prophecy!

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt here, about publicly maligning entire swathes of the population. For example, headlines stating that everyone that lives in Davoren Park is a dole-bludger may lead a large proportion of the population to treat them as such, and this may just create the social and economic conditions necessary for people living in Davoren Park to end up needing the dole. Well, that would be a big mistake indeed, wouldn’t it? HUGE.

Dr Jessica L Peterson, Senior Research Fellow, CQUniversity, Appleton Institute

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