It can change lives, but have you heard of it – the Pygmalion effect?

The Pygmalion effect. It has the power to not only potentially change your life but the lives of others.

You might be familiar with part of the name – Pygmalion. He was a legendary sculptor from Greek mythology. As the story goes, Pygmalion set about to carve the perfect woman out of stone. He soon grew quite fond of his creation, much as we might be after working away to create the perfect meal. The only difference was that Pygmalion really did fall in love with his statue – literally. 

pygmalion
Courtesy of Boris Vallejo, Pygmalion, 1988

Unfortunately, skin and stone don’t make the best union. That is until Aphrodite turned his beloved statue was a statue no more. Galatea – as Pygmalion named her – became animated. She was real. And the rest is history.

If Pygmalion fell in love with his statue, the Pygmalion effect isn’t that different. Instead, it’s about falling in love with our first impression, and how this can alter the trajectory of people’s lives.

The Pygmalion effect in the wild

To understand its phenomenal power, you first need to realise how it affected an ordinary class of students.

It happened in a small British school – a mistake that led to a curious finding.

The computer system bungled up the students’ classes.

It placed the students with the higher test scores in the class meant for those who were underperforming while placing the underperforming students in the advanced class.

Six months went by. During this time, the struggling students were encouraged and pushed along by their teachers – believing they were gifted. In the other classroom, the teachers taught thinking these students were academically less capable.

The mistake was eventually picked up, but not before this extraordinary finding. The students who were originally underperforming outperformed the other class of academically stronger students.

The kicker?

Both classrooms were teaching the identical content.

This is the power of the Pygmalion effect.

We rise or fall to the expectations placed upon us.

The power of impressions

Without realising, the teachers’ subconscious belief that their students weren’t capable leaked into their actions. When the high-performing students were expected to underperform, they did exactly that. They fell to their teachers’ expectations without even being consciously aware.

As for the students who were struggling, things went a little differently. After the first few tests, the teachers were confronted with lower scores.

“Is it the students’ fault?” They thought.

“It can’t be; these students are gifted.” They added.

The teachers assumed the fault lay with themselves. They began encouraging the students, lifting them up, and expecting success from them. These underperforming students became the new high achievers.

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We rise and fall to the expectations placed upon us. Everyone is holding greatness within. Be the light that illuminates this greatness.

One of the greatest gifts we can receive is a person’s genuine belief in us.

It costs nothing to give and is worth more than you could imagine.

The Pygmalion Effect Kashen 2011
Figure 1. The Pygmalion Effect (Kashen, 2011)
Published in Psychology, Learning, Philosophy, Science
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