The Pygmalion Effect: The Power of (False) Perceptions

Here’s a common cliche from self-help gurus: if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. And sometimes, research uncovers more in a cliche than first expected. The power of human perception—specifically on others—is captured in “The Pygmalion Effect.”

In the leading study, elementary school students were given an intelligence test at the start of the school year. A portion of the students were then identified to their teachers as showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth.” These students, consistent with what their teachers were told, performed very well academically.

But these students were actually chosen at random, with no relation to the initial intelligence test.

The reasoning is that when we expect high levels of performance from people, we treat them differently. Teachers showed more positive body language to the students they expected to be gifted. They taught more challenging material, offered more chances to ask questions, and gave personalized feedback. On the flip side, when teachers think students are not bright, they teach simple material and give basic assignments calling for simple answers. The experiment was also conducted at the Airforce Academy, and among college and graduate students.

To put it simply, we rise and fall to the level of expectations. Your perception of others influences how you treat them, which influences their performance and results.

The Pygmalion Effect is often highjacked as a tool purely for self-help—how can I alter perceptions to change my reality and make my life better?

While it is wise to consider how you are viewed by others, we cannot miss the lesson of how our perception affects others. In the context of parenting, Carl Sagan noted, “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”

The “Pygmalion” name comes from an ancient Greek story of a sculptor who yearned for the statue of a woman he created to come to life. Just as Pygmalion’s yearning became a reality, here are some practical takeaways to adjust your perceptions to bring positive results in others:

  • Never forecast failure on anyone, explicitly nor implicitly.
  • Examine what kind of attitude you may carry into conversations with a particular person or a sentiment you carry in a partiular setting. Adjust them.
  • Make your default expectation of others a positive one; give others the benefit of the doubt; tell them that you’re confident they will succeed (but also give specific reasons why, otherwise you can create false sense of confidence or set them up for disappointment).
  • Put a stop to any gossip or gripe sessions. This only facilitates negative attitudes and an anticipation of poor behaviors.  
  • Do not compromise on having high expectations. The challenge is needing to balance accepting failures and demanding better, i.e., taking it on the chin when someone falls short; making a concession when mistakes are made; expressing disappointment and being stern in demanding better. And this can only be done case-by-case.