What is the Pygmalion effect?
You may have heard of the Pygmalion effect, either from the mythological Greek character or the stage play of the same name. But it's also a valuable psychological phenomenon with numerous applications, including for teachers, managers, and employees. Read on to understand what makes the Pygmalion effect important and how it can improve your marketing.
The Pygmalion effect is a self-fulfilling prophecy—a belief or expectation about a person or situation that, when acted upon, causes it to come true. Self-fulfilling prophecies can have significant effects on individuals and groups, as they shape beliefs, one's expectations of others, and behaviors in a circular fashion that impacts outcomes in personal and professional settings.
Greek myth and teachers' expectations
The name for this phenomenon comes from Greek mythology. Pygmalion was a sculptor who made a statue of a woman so beautiful and lifelike that he fell in love with it. In fact, he loved the statue so much that his belief itself brought it to life.
In modern science, the Pygmalion effect (sometimes known as the Rosenthal effect) was first identified by psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968. In a study of elementary school students, the researchers told teachers that some students (chosen at random) were expected to do particularly well that year—this group was known as the "intellectual bloomers." Since the teachers believed that these students were talented, the teachers' expectations were higher and they gave those students more support, attention, and positive feedback.
Those students identified as the most likely to make academic gains had the most improved performance and higher self-esteem, demonstrating that teacher expectations became a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as Rosenthal believed would happen. The experiment even led to increased scores on an IQ test for some students!
Pygmalion beyond the classroom
In the early 20th century, a German math teacher owned a horse named Clever Hans, who he claimed could perform arithmetic. He would ask Clever Hans a question, and the horse would tap his hoof a certain number of times to indicate the answer. However, Clever Hans actually picked up on subtle cues from his human handlers, like tensed muscles, when he approached the correct answer. This phenomenon came to be known as the Clever Hans effect and is a close cousin of the Pygmalion effect.
The Pygmalion effect is also closely related to the psychological concept of expectancy induction, in which people generate expectations about future events based on knowledge of past events. Expectancy induction can influence how we act toward other people, which affects what they believe about themselves and how they act as a result.
Pygmalion, business, and marketing
Although first studied in the classroom, further research has shown that the Pygmalion effect occurs in workplace settings as well. If a manager believes their employees will perform well, they provide encouragement and support that result in the expected positive results. Similarly, low expectations lead to lower performance even in groups of employees with similar abilities.
A study by a professor at the Harvard Business School looked at branch bank managers who had high rates of loss and then had their lending authority reduced. The branch managers, in response to lower expectations, granted riskier loans, resulting in further damage to their careers.
The four elements of the Pygmalion effect
Researchers have identified four elements that work together to create the Pygmalion effect:
A positive environment is one in which the targeted audience feels supported and encouraged, while a negative climate is characterized by a lack of encouragement and negative expectations.
The resources and support that are provided to the student or audience—such as training, encouragement, or other tools—are the input. Providing adequate input can help support high performance.
Better performance reinforces positive expectations, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, poor performance can lead to a negative cycle of low expectations and decreasing performance.
Positive feedback encourages enhanced performance, while negative feedback can lead to a decrease in, for example, student achievement and test scores.
The Pygmalion cycle
We can see how the elements of the Pygmalion effect work and how teacher expectations act to influence students' performance. Examining what's known as the "Pygmalion cycle" can illuminate how this applies in the classroom and the workplace.
People's beliefs influence their actions toward others. In the same way that teachers tend to provide more encouragement and help if they believe that a student is likely to succeed, low expectations can affect the behavior of a manager in the workplace or parents with their children.
A person—whether it's a student or an employee—finds their beliefs about themselves impacted by the treatment they receive as a result of other people's expectations. If you treat an employee as someone who exercises poor judgement by, for example, not allowing them to make decisions, they will start to believe that about themselves.
As a result of these new beliefs, the target acts on those beliefs, maybe scoring lower on the same IQ test they did well on in the previous school year or pursuing fewer sales leads.
Finally, since this behavior matches the lowered expectations of teachers, managers, parents, or peers, those people's beliefs are reinforced and the target continues to act on the lowered expectations.
Examples of the Pygmalion effect
Studies have shown that the Pygmalion effect works in a broader context as well, on both individual and systemic levels.
Because the Pygmalion effect has been widely studied in the classroom, it's easy to see how teacher expectations can influence the behavior, test scores, and performance of individual children. Most teachers work directly with each student every day, so the one-to-one relationship and its causal effects are easy to observe.
Like teachers, managers or business owners who have direct contact with their employees can put the Pygmalion cycle to work, establishing and reinforcing expectations and quality performance.
We can see the same results for entire groups. If a teacher or manager expects that certain types of people will perform better than others—for example, that women are more honest than men or that younger people work harder than older people—their behavior toward those groups will reflect those beliefs and thereby influence how those groups will perform.
In addition, systemic effects can occur if the high expectations are not applied equally. For example, if a teacher has high expectations for only some students, other students, in contrast, will all be negatively influenced by the lack of expectations and their work will suffer.
Use the Pygmalion effect to improve your marketing
The benefit of high expectations can apply to everything from education to sports to mathematical horses! But how can you use the Pygmalion effect to improve your business's marketing efforts? Read on for some tips to reap the benefits of higher expectations.
Within your team
Great marketing starts with a strong team. The Pygmalion effect shows that high expectations can keep your employees motivated and performing at their best.
As an employer
As someone who manages employees, there are several things you can do to make sure you're taking advantage of the Pygmalion effect's benefits:
- Set high expectations for all your team members and make sure they know you have confidence in them and appreciate the crucial role they play in your organization. Examine whether you have different expectations for different employees and whether your management style reflects that.
- Give more detailed feedback to your team members, making sure to emphasize positive outcomes like improved performance.
- Provide the necessary resources, tools, and support to help your team members succeed. Encourage them to seek help if needed and offer assistance when necessary.
- Recognize and celebrate success. Reward employees' achievements and show appreciation for their hard work to help create self-fulfilling prophecies and set high expectations for future performance.
As an employee
Hopefully, every manager or employer raises expectations for their team and provides the support and positive feedback that have been shown to improve performance. But if you find that others' expectations are not oriented toward helping you do your best work, there are still actions you can take.
- Seek out mentors, supervisors, or colleagues who do set high expectations of others and use their positive example and support to drive your work.
- Apply the Pygmalion effect to yourself. If you raise your own expectations and seek out challenges and constructive feedback, you can expect to improve at whatever you're doing and set a positive example for your colleagues.
For your customers
The Pygmalion effect can also be applied to your efforts to attract new customers and build your customer base. The expectations a customer has of a company can influence their perception of the company's products and services and ultimately impact their behavior. If they believe that your business is customer-friendly, provides quality service, and has a top-notch product, their expectations and the resulting behavior will result in that high-quality service from your organization.
Now that you understand how the Pygmalion effect works, you can use it to influence customer perceptions, create a positive customer experience, and foster loyalty to your brand. This can lead to repeat business, positive word-of-mouth referrals, and a strong reputation in the marketplace.
Here's how to apply the lessons of the Pygmalion effect to your marketing:
- Set high expectations for the level of service and quality of products customers can expect to receive. When you meet or exceed people's expectations, you not only build your company's reputation, but also challenge yourself to continue raising the bar.
- Let your customers know that you appreciate their business. Offer discounts or promotions to reward repeat business, showing that you expect them to return as loyal customers.
- Encourage customers to provide feedback, both positive and negative, about their experience with your company. Use this feedback to improve your service and show that you value their input.
Here are some hypothetical examples of the Pygmalion effect in action:
- A direct-to-consumer company that offers generous, no-questions-asked returns sends the message that they trust their customers not to abuse the policy, resulting in customers who think of themselves as honest and trustworthy and thus initiate a return only if there's a genuine need.
- All of the employees in a marketing department are encouraged to think creatively and push the boundaries in a new branding campaign. Management is generous with positive, constructive feedback, and when the new campaign launches successfully, everyone feels they had a part to play and their efforts were appreciated.
- A consulting company encourages constructive criticism from clients, assuring them that feedback and suggestions will be considered carefully. As a result, they get more thoughtful replies, resulting in actionable insights to improve their business and reinforcing their reputation as a responsive organization.
The lessons learned from teachers who use positive expectations for the children in their classroom to make them all "intellectual bloomers" can be applied to business as well. The Pygmalion effect demonstrates that even with your marketing team, your managers, or your customers, high expectations lead to improved results.