The Pygmalion Effect

The ‘Pygmalion effect’  is a dynamic where the way people are seen influences the way they are treated, consequently prompting them to act accordingly, and thus confirm the original view of them. In this way people set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in widely differing behaviour within divisions of the same company.

The Pygmalion effect is named after the myth recounted by the Roman poet Ovid. He tells the story of Prince Pygmalion of Cyprus, who cannot find a woman he wants to marry. He therefore makes an ivory statue of his ideal woman.

When he falls head over heels in love with this statue, he prays to Venus to bring it to life. Venus grants the prayer, and the prince and his wife live a long and happy life. Pygmalion’s fantasy therefore becomes reality. This story inspired George Bernhard Shaw to write his 1913 play Pygmalion, the basis for the later musical My Fair Lady, in which professor Higgins teaches an uneducated girl to speak and act like a true lady.

What was seen as impossible was made possible by believing in it.

Many different kinds of follow-up research has demonstrated the Pygmalion effect. What a manager thinks of employees is confirmed because the manager acts according to his expectations and employees react according to the behaviour of the manager. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The ‘problem’ is that we create our own proof, thereby proving ourselves right. If people are regarded as criminals then they are treated as such, and the likelihood of them subsequently engaging in criminal behaviour increases. The flipside is that positive expectations can lead to positive behaviour. If people are seen as responsible, then they will also receive more responsibilities, leading them to behave more responsibly.

The crucial point is to be aware of how our views of others influence their behaviour. The view you have of people leads to those people behaving in a certain way, even if these expectations are never stated, and even when there are no expectations at all, because a lack of expectations is an expectation in itself, and this kind of expectation is hardly likely to encourage someone to flourish.

Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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