Pygmalion Effect – Self Fullfilling Prophecy


Pygmalion Effect – Self Fullfilling Prophecy

Pygmalion is a Greek Myth that has a few interpretations, so let me start by sharing a brief overview:

King Pygmalion was in love with Aphrodite and no-one was going to compare to the beauty of the Goddess. There are also stories of the King looking for the perfect woman and according to myth this would still suggest the creation of a statue of  Aphrodite as well.   Pygmalion, being a sculptor as well,  searched to find the best piece of ivory that a king could find, in order to create this representation of his perfect woman. According to myth the statue was created because Aphrodite rejected the advances of the king and would not lie with him. Other stories suggest that the king simply created the perfect image of the woman he loved and he fell in love with the likeness. According to myth of Pygmalion and Galatea the king created the image to sleep with at first, and would place the image on his bed at night while praying for pity. The king became so obsessed with the image as if it was Aphrodite herself that he kept the image with him all the time. The king then announced that he would marry the image in a public ceremony.

You can imagine what kind of gossip and effect this behavior would have on the kingdom.  In the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea – Aphrodite comes down to enter the statue before the wedding,  and brings it to life as Galatea, who bore him Paphus and Metharme. Paphus, Pygmalion’s successor, was the father of Cinyras, who founded the Cyprian city of Paphos and built a famous temple to Aphrodite there. You might be familiar with the Greek myth of Cinyras and Smyrna,where Cinyras boasted of his daughters beauty being greater than Aphrodite herself. This is another story though. The purpose of telling you about Pygmalion is to provide you a little history.

George Bernard Shaw brought this concept to light in his play “Pygmalion”

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

A person’s place in society is in large a matter of how they are treated by others—and this should not be regarded as truth. George Bernard Shaw’s play shows Eliza Doolittle’s remarkable transformation, because of Professor Higgins’ beliefs or expectations of her. With the above quotation, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conclude their 1968 publication and book:

Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development

The book contends that ‘students’ intellectual development is largely a response to what teachers expect and how those expectations are communicated.

The original Pygmalion study involved giving teachers false information about the learning potential of certain students in grades one through six in a San Francisco elementary school.

Rosenthal and Jacobson gave an intelligence test to all of the students at an elementary school in  at the beginning of the school year. Then, they randomly selected 20 percent of the students and reported to the teachers that these students were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and could be expected to “bloom” in their academic performance by the end of the year. The important thing to remember about this is that there was no evidence that any of these students were capable of this, and that no test results were actually used to determine the selection.

At the end of the academic year, eight months later, they came back and re-tested all the students. Those labeled as “intelligent” children showed a significant improvement in the new tests than the other children who were not singled out for the teachers’ attention. This means that “the change in the teachers’ expectations regarding the intellectual performance of these allegedly ‘special’ children had led to an actual change in the intellectual performance of these randomly selected children”.

The teachers were also asked to rate students on variables related to intellectual curiosity, personal and social adjustment, and need for social approval. In what can be interpreted as a ‘benign cycle,’ those average children who were expected to bloom intellectually were rated by teachers as more intellectually curious, happier, and in less need for social approval.

For ethical reasons, the Oak School experiment only focused on favorable or positive expectations and their impact on intellectual competence, but it is reasonable to infer that unfavorable expectations could also lead to a corresponding decrease in performance. Often, these negative expectations are based on appearances and other factors that have little to do with actual intellectual ability:

There are many determinants of a teacher’s expectation of her pupils’ intellectual ability. Even before a teacher has seen a pupil deal with academic tasks she is likely to have some expectation for his behavior. If she is to teach a ‘slow group,’ or children of darker skin color, or children whose mothers are ‘on welfare,’ she will have different expectations for her pupils’ performance than if she is to teach a ‘fast group,’ or children of an upper-middle-class community. Before she has seen a child perform, she may have seen his score on an achievement or ability test or his last years’ grades, or she may have access to the less formal information that constitutes the child’s reputation.

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study and subsequent research confirmed that teachers’ expectations matter, that student labeling is often done on arbitrary and biased grounds, and suggested that through the hidden curriculum teachers can, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce existing class, ethnic and gender inequalities. This is done by creating a classroom atmosphere in which some students are systematically encouraged to succeed whereas others are systematically dis-encouraged, reproducing in the classroom the social cycle of advantages and disadvantages. It also implies, conversely (and this has important policy implications), that a change in teachers expectations can lead to an improvement in intellectual performance from those who are usually expected to achieve the least.

How does a teacher convey his or her expectations to the students?

Rosenthal’s four-factor theory, described in the training video, PRODUCTIVITY AND THE SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY: THE PYGMALION EFFECT (CRM Films, 1987), identifies climate, feedback, input, and output as the factors teachers use to convey expectations.

CLIMATE: the socioemotional mood or spirit created by the person holding the expectation, often communicated non-verbally (e.g., smiling and nodding more often, providing greater eye contact, leaning closer to the student).

FEEDBACK: providing both affective information (e.g., more praise and less criticism of high-expectation students) and cognitive information (e.g., more detailed, as well as higher quality feedback as to the correctness of higher-expectation students’ responses).

INPUT: teachers tend to teach more to students of whom they expect more.

OUTPUT: teachers encourage greater responsiveness from those students of whom they expect more through their verbal and nonverbal behaviors (i.e., providing students with greater opportunities to seek clarification).

These four factors, each critical to conveying a teacher’s expectations, can better be controlled only if teachers are more aware that the factors are operating in the first place. Even if a teacher does not truly feel that a particular student is capable of greater achievement or significantly improved behavior, that teacher can at least act as if he or she holds such heightened positive expectations.

Good and Brophy’s (1980) study on how teacher expectations affect student achievement seems to be a very good description of the process:

1..Early in the school year, teachers form differential expectations for student behavior and achievement.

2.  Consistent with these differential expectations, teachers behave differently toward various students.

3.  This treatment tells students something about how they are expected to behave in the classroom and perform on academic tasks.

4.  If the teacher treatment is consistent over time and if students do not actively resist or change it, it will likely affect their self-concepts, achievement motivation, levels of aspiration, classroom conduct, and interactions with the teacher.

5.  These effects generally will complement and reinforce the teacher’s expectations, so that students will come to conform to these expectations more than they might have otherwise.

6.  Ultimately, this will affect student achievement and other outcomes. High-expectation students will be led to achieve at or near their potential, but low- expectation students will not gain as much as they could have gained if taught differently.

The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) had been introduced to the sociological debate by Robert Merton in a seminal essay published in the Antioch Review in 1948. In that article, Merton described a self-fulfilling prophecy as a three-stage process beginning with a person’s belief (false at the time it is held) that a certain event will happen in the future. In the second stage this expectation, or prophecy, leads to a new behavior that the person would have not undertake in the absence of such expectation. In the last stage the expected events actually take place, and the prophecy is fulfilled. One of Merton’s examples was the collapse of a solid and solvent financial institution, the Last National Bank, in the early 1930s. The process began with the belief, false at that time, that the institution was at the verge of bankruptcy. That led to a massive withdrawal of savings by panicked depositors, which in turn led to the actual collapse of the bank.

You can still see many different forms of the SFP in many areas or our lives today. We might even consider the idea that SFP is something we are taught as a child with our folklore of Christmas, Easter , and  the Tooth Fairy. Take into consideration now our daily behavior, habits and self talk. Each of these could be examples of a Pygmalion Effect or SFP. Our belief that our genes actually will determine whether we are fat or skinny or the belief that alcoholism or disease can run in a family tree.  The cigarette companies as well use the Pygmalion Effect to attract smokers but more importantly thanks to the government now they would have you believe that smoking is also hard to stop.  What if some of the things we believe that have been holding us back are simply our own creation and we can choose to let them go.

Now that you are becoming more aware of the ability we have to effect our future, how are you going to use this special gift you have been blessed with?  Will you help people around you by becoming more aware of your perceptions of them, or will you focus on your own future. Maybe you are already finding ways to do both.  Remember that you play an important part in the world around you. You will always be perfect in who you are so now take the time and be who you want to be as well. I don’t recommend that you build an ivory statue to love and hope that it comes to life today. At the same time do we still all create our own ivory statues in a way. Over time you might look back and see how the Pygmalion Effect and SFP was so effective in who you are becoming tomorrow.

Mystically yours

Michael Holt, Ph.D.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 at 3:07 pm. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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