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Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Pygmalion Effect - How High Expectation Creates High Performance

In 1911, researchers begin taking special interest in a horse owned by a German mathematician named Von Osten. The horse, aptly named Clever Hans, was reported to able to count - add, subtract, multiply and divide. It was even suggested that Clever Hans could spell and solve problems involving musical harmony. As mystifying and even magical as this seemed to be, it was concluded following a rigorous study, that in fact Clever Hans possessed no highly intelligent factors nor extraordinary abilities. It was simply a case of Clever Hans performing what had become expected of him.

Two researchers, Stumpt and Pfungst, realised that when the handlers of Clever Hans posed questions to him, they were providing subtle physical and verbal cues to the horse as it pertained to the answer. This reality was summarised in the book, 'Teachers and the Learning Process' written by Robert Strom (Prentice-Hall, 1971): 

"Among the first discoveries made was that if the horse could not see the questioner, Hans was not clever at all. Similarly, if the questioner did not himself know the answer to the question, Hans could not answer it either - A forward inclination of the head of the questioner would start Hans tapping, Pfungst observed - as the experimenter straightened up, Hans would stop tapping - he found that even the raising of his eyebrows was sufficient. Even the dilation of the questioner's nostrils was a cue for Hans to stop tapping."

In short, inadvertently, people were offering the correct answers to Clever Hans by communicating their expectations via physical signs - and Hans learned to pick up the signals, no matter how subtle.

This ascension to what is expected of you is known contemporarily as self-fulfilling prophecy and was outlined originally in 1957 by a sociology professor Robert Merton, at Columbia University. In his essay, 'Social Theory and Social Structure', Merton suggested that "a false definition of the situation evokes a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come true". Simply stated, once an expectation is set, even one of false conception, you will act in certain ways that are consistent with that expectation, causing the results of the expectation to become true.

The birth of this theory may actually be found in ancient mythical legend. It is written in the tenth book of Metamorphoses, which the sculptor, Pygmalion, who was a prince of Cyprus, sought to create an ivory statue of his ideal mate. The result of his work was an extraordinarily beautiful sculpted woman, which Pygmalion named Galatea. Because of her beauty, Pygmalion fell desperately in love with the sculpted woman and began praying to Venus to bring Galatea to life. Venus granted his prayer and thus became what is now known as 'the Pygmalion Effect'.

The expectations you direct towards a person, event or even yourself, will eventually come true. This theory has transcended to become a key instrument of learning for managers and supervisors in the business world. It was described by J. Sterling Livingston in the September/October 1988 Harvard Business Review in an article entitled 'Pygmalion in Management'; "The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them".

The Pygmalion Effect can either elevate an employee's productivity or entirely undermine it. For instance, workers who receive continuous verbal praise for their efforts, while being supported by non-verbal means, will aspire and ascend to even more productivity. In contrast, if an employee receives less praise or even communication from management than their peers or co-workers, although nothing is being conveyed verbally, the worker feels as though they are underappreciated and will see a lapse or decrease in productivity.


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