The Pygmalion Effect: Can what is expected from us define our paths?

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect.Think of a basketball coach that encourages their team to imagine the ball going into the hoop right before they take a shot, the Pygmalion Effect would say there’s a higher chance of the ball going in because of the positive change in the player’s attitude, and the expectation that it will go into the hoop.

You may not have heard of the Pygmalion Effect, but if you’ve been in any role from a student to a CEO, the effect is in action in all aspects our lives. The Pygmalion Effect makes the notion that the power of positive thinking can result in positive outcomes—just by changing your perspective. Now you’re probably wondering if it really works and if so, then how? Is it our luck or our expectations? Keep reading to find out more.

The Pygmalion Effect and Expectations

What is the Pygmalion Effect?

The Pygmalion Effect comes from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor, who dreamed of making a statue that fulfilled all of his ideas of the perfect woman and who he, in turn, fell madly in love with. Before he began crafting his statue, he knew that he wanted it to represent all of his expectations, his attitudes, and his beliefs of what he was going to put his energy into. The ultimate factors that made him so influential was that Pygmalion had higher expectations of his work that positively motivated him to succeed and therefore saw better and even enhanced outcomes.

Since then, modern psychology has used Pygmalion and his statue as an example of the seemingly silly, though goal-oriented, expectations into reality. We sometimes refer to the Pygmalion Effect as the Rosenthal Effect. This name is due to the unique classroom study conducted by Dr. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. The researchers wanted to see if the Pygmalion Effect could be used in a school setting where leaders, in this case, teachers could be led to change their expectations about their followers, in this case, students performance. Rosenthal did this by giving an IQ test to students that was evaluated at random to inform teachers the scores of students that could be “intellectual bloomers” as those names were given to their teachers. After the study, all of the students were given the original IQ test and what resulted was that the “intellectual bloomers” in primary school groups had scored higher than the non-bloomer control groups. Rosenthal and Jacobson predicted and attributed these results to the teachers’ higher expectations of potential “bloomers” than those who were non-bloomers, because these leaders had set expectations and believed that the followers would perform better and as a result, they had.

By seeing the power of Pygmalion in effect, the study had set the humanbenchmark for other psychological phenomena, like social learning theory and self-efficacy theory, and now newer fields like Positive Psychology. The Pygmalion Effect and the power of positive psychology can not only improve your work ethic but even in how you see yourself, and how you see the world.

“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

What’s the reasoning behind the Pygmalion Effect?

You’re probably wondering if this theory is as easy as it sounds and that a change of mindset can be as effective as Rosenthal and other psychologists claim it to be. To start, humans naturally feel from time to time that some goals are simply out of reach. These ideas create unwanted anxiety symptoms and feelings of uncertainty. Though we’ve learned over time that these feelings are natural and can be useful to help us push through with the necessary motivation and we find the affirmation from within ourselves (intrinsic motivation), and from others, that everything will be okay.

But the idea that others can motivate or affirm us isn’t new. When we were babies, we would cry and we knew our caretakers would be there to assure us that everything was okay and it was just a matter of how they could soothe us. When we experience these feelings as get older, we don’t feel the need for this affirmation because our formative relationships from our parents and people we love assured us that the anxiety would pass. As we went to school, we knew our teachers could also reassure us and reaffirm that, yes, it is possible and yes, you can do it. We take this idea and use it as encouragement and hope to one day be successful in our life’s endeavors.

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect

The psychology behind the Pygmalion Effect works with the concept of self-efficacy within social learning theory that happens during our fundamental years of development. Self-efficacy is the belief of one’s ability to accomplish specific tasks and is focused on throughout social learning theory and social cognitive theory. Albert Bandura, a renowned developmental psychologist and devout social learning theorist, describes self-efficacy as an extension of social learning theory and that we have four sources of our own sense of self-efficacy: past performance, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and emotional cues. Pygmalion Effect is used frequently in verbal persuasion to act as a tool of encouragement from our peers or authority figures. Using the Pygmalion Effect for verbal persuasion is widely regarded as a form of self-fulfilling prophecy that states that believing something to be true will make it true, according to a literature review of self-efficacy in the workplace by Fred Lunenburg at Sam Houston State University.

Another way to talk about the Pygmalion effect is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy or the placebo effect. The self-fulfilling prophecy is believing in something enough to make it true—and works similarly to the placebo effect. A simple example would be if you have a headache you could take an ibuprofen to relieve the pain, but if you took a pill that you didn’t know was actually a sugar pill, or a placebo, you would still be at least slightly relieved of your pain, because you thought, “I took the pain reliever, and therefore my pain will be gone.” The theory attributes that with the expectations you put into the pill’s function ultimately changed how you wanted to experience its effects, may it be the real pill or just a placebo. Experiments like this using the placebo effect are crucial within medical and psychological research. The theory from social learning deals with our affirmation into our thoughts and our beliefs have changed in order to positively affect our outcomes, and in this example is to relieve pain. In the Pygmalion Effect, the sculptor had a certain expectation for his statue, and he, in turn, believed that his outcomes would reflect his expectations.

Pygmalion theory uses leaders and followers as a way to influence our thoughts and behaviors and has shown to be profound for those in leadership roles like a teacher or a boss. A trick to boost morale and productivity that many leaders use is Pygmalion’s Effect because it not only benefits the growth and productivity of a workplace or school setting, but it improves the subordinates performance by leading themselves into positive affirmations that let them have the power to accomplish difficult tasks and problem solve.

Here is a short video from Jeroen De Flander that gives a helpful visual example to sum up what we’ve said about the Pygmalion Effect

So is the Pygmalion Effect useful for everything?

Pygmalion’s Effect is a game changer for many. We know it can improve motivation, affirmation, and work ethic. This practice can be very useful if done correctly because we risk the other side of the theory and those personal limitations that may also exist. We can think of this as a double edged sword; the main principle of the Pygmalion Effect is that higher expectations lead to better outcomes, but the other side is that also lower expectations will also lead to decreased or even unwanted outcomes.

When we find ourselves stressed or anxious, it can be easy to slip into a hole of worry and distress over the goal that seems impossible that then leads us to shy away from the goal entirely. This other side of the Pygmalion Effect is called the Galatea or Golem Effect and is, too, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Galatea effect reminds us that our minds can be a trap sometimes, and our feelings are not always the truth, but with positive leaders and affirmative teachers, it can make the hugest difference in how we see ourselves and our great potential.

When it comes to children the pygmalion effect has a certain influence. We hear parents often refer to their children as “shy, or clumsy or naughty”. All these adjectives lead to for parents to expect certain behaviors from their children. This, in turn, can take a part in their personality development, even though it is the opposite of what we would like.

This happens when we are not aware that a child’s self-concept is based on the expectations and beliefs that others place in them, more often authority figures such as parents or teachers.

What we express to a child about his abilities directly influences what he considers himself capable of doing. Just as fear tends to cause fears to occur, self-confidence, even if it is infected by a third party, can give us wings to soar. 

The Pygmalion Effect: The Take-Away

To reflect on the Pygmalion Effect, it was Pygmalion’s high motivation and expectations that let him make his self-fulfilling prophecy a reality, not a lack of ambition or struggles that he could have let define his actions. Thought patterns and brain training can be the most helpful way to let us see what our potential and our capabilities really are, whether we believe we have them, or not. The Pygmalion Effect can be one of the most useful ways to accomplish our goals and feel valuable and worthy in ourselves and in our communities.

Our friends and our families are our biggest cheerleaders and motivators, so if we ever feel like we are struggling or need help, turning to our loved ones can make the change we need to see in ourselves for the better. Thought patterns also help you show reasonings behind struggles and negative feelings related to motivation and productivity, which in that case seeing a counselor or a specialist that can help you identify and work towards changing negative thought patterns, and to overall reach every goal!


Lunenburg, F. C. (2011). Self-efficacy in the workplace: implications for motivation and performance. International journal of management, business, and administration, 14(1), 1-6.

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