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The Pygmalion Effect: Do Expectations Shape Reality?

05/21/2015 09:32 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016

When I was an intern in Neurology the head physician at the time, Dr. M, thought the world of me. "Dr. Boardman, what do you think? " he asked whenever there was a question about a diagnosis. "Good work, Dr. Boardman," he said whenever I reported lab results or presented a new patient. I thrived under his leadership and did my utmost to live up to his high expectations. It motivated me to work harder and to do my best.

Then Dr. F came along. Everything changed when he replaced Dr. M. Dr. F did not think so highly of me. In fact, it would be safe to say he thought very little of me. His low expectations became a reality. I made dumb mistakes. My mind went blank whenever he asked me questions. My confidence evaporated along with my motivation. I became a completely different person in his presence.

Looking back, I recognize what psychologists call the Pygmalion Effect in action. The Pygmalion Effect refers to the phenomenon of how our beliefs about someone influence their behavior. Great expectations promote achievement, low expectations undermine achievement.

Psychologists first studied the dramatic impact of the Pygmalion Effect in a classroom. If a teacher expected enhanced performance by a student, the student's performance was enhanced. Here is a description of the original study:

Students took a test that was said to be able to identify "growth spurters,"...those who were poised to make strides academically. Teachers were given the names of pupils who were about to bloom intellectually -- and sure enough, these students showed a significantly greater gain in performance over their classmates when tested again at the end of the year. But here's the thing: the "spurters" were actually chosen at random. The only difference between them and their peers was in the mind of the teacher.

So if teachers expect Johnny to be a "problem child," it is likely Johnny will behave like a problem child. Fixed labels and limited expectations shape reality.

The Pygmalion Effect is not just limited to schools. Expectations about individuals become self-fulfilling in offices, on sports fields, in families and in romance. People get better at a sport when the coach believes in their potential. Employees do better when a manager has high expectations. Children thrive when parents recognize their strengths. Relationships do better when partners look for growth and possibility in each other.

The term "Pygmalion Effect" is a reference to Ovid's Metamorphosis. In the myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created that comes to life. George Bernard Shaw appropriated this theme for the play Pygmalion about a professor, Henry Higgins, who transforms a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady. The play highlights the power of positive expectations. As Eliza explains, how we treat others is transformative:

You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.

Expectations shape behavior in powerful ways. Help others reveal the greatest version of themselves by believing in their potential.

To learn more, visit www.PositivePrescription.com