What Is Pygmalion Effect? (Psychological Experiment)

Pygmalion Effect Explanation

The Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect states that higher expectations lead to higher performance. Positive beliefs about a person’s capabilities impact behavior, influencing their beliefs about themselves. Their feelings affect their behavior towards you.

It confirms and strengthens their original beliefs, creating a cycle of challenging positivity. The term comes from Greek mythology about a sculptor named Pygmalion who carved an ivory statue of a woman who fell in love with his creation. In despair, Pygmalion prayed to Venus, the goddess of love asking her to bring him a woman like a statue.

What is Pygmalion effect?

The Pygmalion effect manages the power of expectations and explores expectations’ positive and negative effects on others. Social psychologist Dr. Robert Rosenthal discusses the four factors of the expected cycle. We teach more to those from whom we expect more. We’re able to give them more information to do a better job.

One’s expectation about a person can eventually lead that person to behave and achieve in ways that confirm that expectation. – Dr. Robert T. Tauber

Neuroscience is a biological science concerned with the function of the brain and the nervous system. Scientists thought the brain was fixed and couldn’t change after childhood for many years. But advances in MRI scanning have shown that this could not be further from the truth. Brains change and adapt every day regardless of our age.

We are harnessing the power of neuroplasticity. Neuroscientists believe we have over 100 billion neurons in our brains capable of connecting to tens of thousands of others. Neurons are the brain’s building blocks. Each can make trillions of connections every second. When we learn or expect a new skill, we make new connections between neurons. It becomes more accessible for the brain to follow this pathway.

The opposite of the Pygmalion Effect is lower expectations lead to lower performance. It’s called the Golem effect. The effect is named after the golem, a magical clay creature in Jewish mythology. In one legend, the golem was brought to life by a Rabbi to protect the Jews of Prague. The Pygmalion and Golem effects can have severe ramifications when a teacher, boss, coach, etc., has a personal bias against a particular ethnicity.

Also, both effects are self-fulfilling prophecies. Whether the expectations come from us or others, the effect manifests differently. Teacher Iowan Jane Elliott carried out an interesting, non-scientific experiment variation on this phenomenon in 1968.

Expectations influence and empower life goals. High expectations create positive results, and low expectations, on the other hand, decrease performance and motivation. This psychological phenomenon can affect any setting, and its impact can last a lifetime. Also, It expands your mind and sharpens your identity. Self-determination theory explores the roots of human motivation.

People have three basic needs relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Each need is important for dedication, passion, and happiness. But the last one, autonomy, plays a crucial role in self-confidence.

Autonomy is the ability to make independent decisions in life. It gives agency, and agency lets you hold onto your future. Self-efficacy this concept comes from a psychologist named Albert Bandura. It is very similar to autonomy. Autonomy is a human desire for control. Self-efficacy, on the other hand, is the perception of autonomy.

Pygmalion effect experiment

In 1963 Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal tried an experiment using a controlled laboratory environment. He had two groups of students coach rats through a maze. He said their rats were specially bred to be smart while telling the other group that their rats were dumb.

In actuality, there was no difference between the two groups of rats. All were ordinary lab rats randomly assigned to the bright or dull group. However, the ‘smart’ rats outperformed the dumb rats during the experiment. This showed that the coaches’ expectations and how they trained their rats due to those expectations affected the rats’ behavior.

Based on the success of his experiment, Rosenthal conducted an extensive study. This time with humans at an elementary school. Rosenthal administered an IQ test to Spruce Elementary School in South San Francisco students. Afterward, teachers were told that some students were “intellectual bloomers” and should do better academically than their classmates.

The teachers were given a list of the bloomers’ names. In reality, 20% of the students were randomly designated as “intellectual bloomers.” Over the next school year, the designated bloomers excelled as predicted. At the end of the study, eight months later, Rosenthal tested students using the same IQ test.

In all grades, students in the 20% bloomer group and the regular student control group showed the first IQ test again to the second IQ test. However, the intellectual bloomers gained more IQ points on average than regular students.

Overall, in grades first through six, the bloomer group showed a 12-point gain compared to an 8.5-point gain for the control group. First and second-grade bloomers showed significant IQ gains, on average upwards of 27 points. It led to the conclusion that teachers expect their students’ potential, particularly young children.

Rosenthal’s study reverberated through the education system. Everyone has great potential. If only their teacher would encourage it! Rosenthal’s experiment was somewhat controversial and criticized for its weak methodology. Some felt that the IQ test Rosenthal used was flawed. Teachers at the school ended up feeling angry and betrayed.

Since then, researchers have endeavored to recreate Rosenthal’s study with varying degrees of success. Results seem most fruitful when the teacher’s behavior is subconsciously driven. Also, results tend to be not as strong when teachers consciously create expectations.

Even so, the Pygmalion effect is a powerful tool and skill for encouraging. The effect is taught in educator and leadership management courses. Everybody adopts this effect in daily life.

More Articles:


Mitchell, Terence R.; Daniels, Denise. “Motivation.” In Walter C. Borman; Daniel R. Ilgen; Richard J. Klimoski (eds.). Handbook of Psychology (Volume 12).
Raudenbush, Stephen. “Magnitude of teacher expectancy effects on pupil IQ as a function of the credibility of expectancy induction: A synthesis of findings from 18 experiments”. Journal of Educational Psychology.
Rosenthal, Robert; Jacobson, Lenore. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development (Newly expanded ed.).

Julia Rose

My name is Julia Rose. I'm a registered clinical therapist, researcher, and coach. I'm the author of this blog. There are also two authors: Dr. Monica Ciagne, a registered psychologist and motivational coach, and Douglas Jones, a university lecturer & science researcher. I would love to hear your opinion, question, suggestions, please let me know. We will try to help you.

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