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The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right

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If you expect a dazzling feat, you might just get one.

Many people believe that their pets are of unusual intelligence and can understand everything they say, often with stories of abnormal behavior to back it up. In the late 19th century, one man made such a claim about his horse—and appeared to have evidence to prove it to anyone.

Wilhelm Von Osten was a teacher and horse trainer who believed animals could learn to read or count. Von Osten’s initial attempts with dogs and a bear were unsuccessful, but when he began working with an unusual horse, he ended up changing our understanding of psychology. Known as Clever Hans, the horse in question could answer questions with 90 percent accuracy by tapping his hoof. He could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and tell the time and the date.

Clever Hans could also read and understand questions written or asked in German. Crowds flocked to see the horse, and the scientific community soon grew interested. Researchers studied the horse, looking for signs of trickery. Yet they found none. The horse could answer questions asked by anyone, even if Von Osten was absent. This indicated that no signaling was at play. For a while, the world believed the horse was truly clever.

Then psychologist Oskar Pfungst turned his attention to Clever Hans. Assisted by a team of researchers, he uncovered two anomalies. When blinkered or behind a screen, the horse could not answer questions. Likewise, he could respond only if the questioner knew the answer. From these observations, Pfungst deduced that Clever Hans was not making any mental calculations. Nor did he understand numbers or language in the human sense. Although Von Osten had intended no trickery, the act was false.

Instead, Clever Hans had learned to detect subtle yet consistent nonverbal cues. When someone asked a question, Clever Hans responded to their body language with a degree of accuracy many poker players would envy. For example, when someone asked Clever Hans to make a calculation, he would begin tapping his hoof. Once he reached the correct answer, the questioner would show involuntary signs. Pfungst found that many people tilted their head at this point. Clever Hans would recognize this behavior and stop.

When blinkered or when the questioner did not know the answer, the horse didn’t have a clue. When he couldn’t see the cues, he had no answer. People believed the horse understood them, so they effectively made it possible. Subtle cues in our behavior influence what other people are capable of. The horse was obviously unusually smart, but no one would have known if he hadn’t been given the opportunity to display it. Which raises the question: what unimagined things could we all be capable of if someone simply expected them?


How expectations influence performance

The term “Pygmalion effect” was coined in reference to studies done in the 1960s on the influence of teacher expectations on students’ IQs. The studies asked if teachers had high expectations, would those expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies regardless of initial IQ? In that particular case, years of debate and analysis have resulted in the conclusion that the effects were negligible.

Nonetheless, the concept of the Pygmalion effect—expectations influencing performance and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies—is widespread. Many people have stories of achieving something just because someone had especially high expectations of them.

In Pygmalion in Management, J. Sterling Livingston writes:

“Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most…unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.”

The Pygmalion effect suggests our reality is negotiable and can be manipulated by others—on purpose or by accident. What we achieve, how we think, how we act, and how we perceive our capabilities can be influenced by the expectations of those around us.

Clever Hans was an intelligent horse, but he was smart because he could read almost imperceptible nonverbal cues, not because he could do math. So he did have unusual capabilities, as shown by the fact that few other animals have proved capable of the same.

An interesting use of the Pygmalion effect might be that suggested by George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. In it, Professor Henry Higgins takes a poor flower seller from the streets, Eliza Doolittle, and by giving her elocution lessons helps her sound like a duchess. Being able to speak like a member of the upper classes is meant to open doors and give her opportunities that she would otherwise never have.

The play is, among other things, an exploration of how others’ expectations limit us. Eliza has far more potential than can be realized solely because of her accent. A critical part of the plot is that Eliza herself is all too aware of how her speech holds her back and diminishes her value in the eyes of others. She is the one who follows Higgins and cajoles him into taking her on as a student. She sees the opportunities that will follow from changing her accent.

The improvements in Eliza’s speech alone do not confer the opportunities. But being able to speak like a duchess puts her in the company of people from whom she can learn the sentiments and sensibilities of the upper class. When she begins to speak like them, they treat her differently, giving her an opening to expand her capabilities.


Check your assumptions

The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.” —Carl Sagan

In Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education, Robert T. Tauber describes an exercise in which people are asked to list their assumptions about people with certain descriptions. These included a cheerleader, “a minority woman with four kids at the market using food stamps,” and a “person standing outside smoking on a cold February day.” An anonymous survey of undergraduate students revealed mostly negative assumptions. Tauber asks the reader to consider how being exposed to these types of assumptions might affect someone’s day-to-day life.

The expectations people have of us affect us in countless subtle ways each day. Like Eliza Doolittle, those expectations dictate the opportunities we are offered, how we are spoken to, and the praise and criticism we receive. Individually, these knocks and nudges may have minimal impact. In the long run, however, they might dictate whether we succeed or fail or fall somewhere on the spectrum in between.

A perfect illustration of this is the case of James Sweeney and George Johnson, as described in Pygmalion in Management. Sweeney was a teacher at Tulane University, where Johnson worked as a porter. Aware of the Pygmalion effect, or perhaps just familiar with the play, Sweeney had a hunch that he could teach anyone to be a competent computer operator. He began his experiment, offering Johnson lessons each afternoon. Other university staff were dubious, especially as Johnson appeared to have a low IQ. But the effort was successful, and the former janitor eventually became responsible for training new computer operators.

The Pygmalion effect is best understood as a reminder to be mindful of the potential influence of our expectations. Even if the effect is small, having high expectations in many situations can only inspire others regarding their own capabilities. People’s limitations can be stretched if you change your perception of their limitations.

A lot of what we accomplish in life is done in groups. Individual success is often dependent on some degree of team success. Thus, we have a better chance of succeeding when we are around others who succeed. If you want the people around you to have success, you can try raising your expectations.

If you expect the worst, you’ll probably get it.

The post The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right appeared first on Farnam Street.

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