Synopsis: Studied both in fields of sociology and psychology, self-fulfilling prophecies help us understand how human perceptions and actions can shape other’s perceptions about themselves and direct their own actions. This article explores the Pygmalion effect with the use of some common, everyday examples.
Introduction: Pygmalion Effect
Take for instance that you are a student in a dance school. There is a gossip going around that the dance teacher treats her students differently. While the demarcations are not written down, she is said to divide students based on her assumptions about whether they have the ‘talent’ to learn the steps properly and put in them two groups whom she treats differently. One student blurts out that it is actually true – students of the two different ‘groups’ that the teacher has created perform differently in exams as per the teacher’s assumptions. The gossip began because two new student is supposed to join the class today and the entire dance school is wondering which mental ‘group’ the teacher will put her in. Once aware of this distinction, you begin thinking about incidences and checking the two undefined ‘groups’ for similarities during that day. You notice that the teacher treats students who are more soft-spoken with more patience and generally likes to correct their forms and improve their dance, while the louder students are treated more rudely. When the two new students arrive, you see that one of them has a softer tone while the other is more outspoken. As you expected, the teacher immediately starts paying more attention to the soft-spoken newcomer while the other one is left to fend for herself. Over the next few days, the loud girl makes little improvement in her performance while her friend makes drastic improvements.
We must have seen, heard of, or even experienced this situation in real life. So often people tell us to be positive or remain optimistic about a situation, because if you are pessimistic, then the worse might come true. Situations such as the on described above are quite a common scene in most teacher-student settings, especially in schools, and also in families, and it is known as the famous Pygmalion effect, or more commonly, self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The name “Pygmalion effect” comes from the famous poem Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid. In the poem, a sculptor called Pygmalion creates a statue “representing his ideal of womanhood” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019), which he falls in love with. According to the myth, his fixation with the idea of bringing the ivory-woman into life was so strong that Goddess Venus put life into the statue, thereby fulfilling Pygmalion’s wish. This myth is important because it contains the gist of what Pygmalion effect is all about.
The concept of self-fulfilling prophecies was first introduced by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1948. According to him, primarily, the self-fulfilling prophecy is “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1948). In other words, if someone perceives a situation in a way that is untrue yet is firm in their belief, then that belief can lead to creation and performance of a new set of behaviors which act in favour of the false perception and end up making it true. Research on the self-fulfilling prophecy theory began in the field of social psychology with the renowned Rosenthal experiment. In their paper, Rosenthal and Fode (1963) explain their experiment in which the students were told that they are conducting an experiment to test the maze-solving skills of rates. Half of them were told that their rats are “maze-bright” while the rest were given “maze-dull” rats, when in reality all rats were similar. This made the students develop pre-conceived notions about the intelligence or dullness of their respective rats. At the end of the experiment, it was found that the “maze-bright” rats had indeed done better than the “maze-dull” ones because of the experimenters’ expectations due to which they treated and put efforts behind each set of rats differently, thereby proving Rosenthal and Fode’s (1963) theory of experimenter’s bias. In another experiment, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) tested the Pygmalion effect or self-fulfilling prophecy theory in a classroom setting, and it is probably through this book that this first came to be known as the Pygmalion effect. According to the authors, “when teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development” (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968, pp. 82-83). In 1973, Rosenthal presented his theory on the four factors based on which the Pygmalion effect plays out in the classroom. Climate – the degree of verbally or non-verbally conveyed warmth in the socio-emotional surroundings by teachers, input – the quantity of material taught to students by the teacher, output – how much response time and opportunities the students are given, and feedback – what quality, quantity and how frequently feedback is given to student by teacher, are the four factors, all based on the teacher’s beliefs about the student (Rosenthal, 2002).
The above experiments can therefore allow us to arrive at a definition of the Pygmalion effect. In this phenomenon, our pre-conceived notions and ideas about others directs our actions towards them, which in turn leads the individual on the receiving end of our actions to develop certain beliefs or conceptions about themselves which can impact how they behave and act with us. Usually, these actions of the other individual are congruent with our initial beliefs about them because our behavior shapes theirs, and therefore our initial notions are strengthened. This leads to the establishment of a never-ending cycle or loop of errored beliefs shaping actions. Another way of describing this might be that people internalize the ideas and notions others have about themselves and act or behave accordingly to adhere to these notions despite how errored they might have been initially. This phenomenon shows the importance of social interaction and how others in a society plays a role in influencing our behavior on a smaller level and our whole life on a larger level.
Examples of the Pygmalion effect
Several experiments have been conducted since Rosenthal’s which time and again provide evidence of the existence of the Pygmalion effect in various contexts. However, to find instances where the Pygmalion affect is starkly apparent, one only needs to look at their own everyday life and social and cultural environment or the world today. Take for example a family of five – the parents and their three children. Often people talk about how the middle child is the ‘black sheep’ of the family–the one who does not fit in, goes against the family expectations, and is unconventional in every way. The parents in our example are also aware of this and when the youngest sibling is born, they start developing notions about their middle child that she is, in the end, going to become the ‘black sheep’ of the family. These abstract ideas soon take the shape of solid beliefs and they start treating the middle child differently. They largely ignore her presence and achievements, and soon the child actually starts behaving in a rebellious manner in order to attract the attention that she has been deprived of. She starts acting up in social situations, does not stay close to her family during events, and rarely communicates with her parents. She is also rude to her siblings and starts fights with them. The parents’ beliefs about her being the family’s ‘black sheep’ are re-established through her actions as she grows, and this continues throughout her life.
Another example can be from the job market. We know that resumes or CVs are most important when applying for jobs. For most employers, these documents form the primary source of information and for the job applicants, these are the most important way to create a good first impression. Say a company is hiring employees, and two applicants submit their resumes. The first document is very simple and to the point, while the second one is extremely detailed. Both the applicants are hired, but the manager expects the first one to slack off while he/she considers the second applicant to be more hardworking because of the effort they put behind creating the CV. In reality, the second applicant had actually paid someone to make a professional CV for them, and most of the well drawn-out points are experiences where the employee did not actually get much experience and skill development, while the first applicant had a lot more skills to offer and a strong will to learn. However, due to the biased perception of the manager, the second employee gets more attention, help, and guidance from the manager, thereby allowing them to progress much faster than the first employee who does not favour the job or put in their full effort because of the manager’s dismissal of their work. Therefore, despite the reality being starkly different, the manager’s perceptions actually end up coming true.
The way people perceive others is most often marked by some bias which can be formed due to a large number of factors. Often these biases about people can lead to biased expectations from them, therefore leading to biased actions towards them, which in turn impacts and shapes how others will behave towards the perceiver. Biased beliefs lead to biased behavior, which most often leads to adherence to that behavior, therefore reinforcing the initial bias and creating a never-ending loop of biases. The Pygmalion effect is a most common phenomenon experienced in everyday life. It is important to know about, understand, and try to avoid these biases in social interactions as they can often lead to errored outcomes, which are not always conducive.
Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. The Antioch Review, 8(2), 193–210. https://doi.org/10.2307/4609267
Rosenthal, R. (2002). The pygmalion effect and its mediating mechanisms. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving Academic Achievement (pp. 25–36). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-012064455-1/50005-1
Rosenthal, R., & Fode, K. L. (1963). The effect of experimenter bias on the performance of the albino rat. Behavioral Science, 8(3), 183–189. https://doi.org/10.1002/bs.3830080302
Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019). Pygmalion | Greek mythology. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pygmalion