Pygmalion Effect and Mental Limits

pygmalion effect

Today I want to talk to you about a very interesting topic that will be useful for your mental reprogramming: the Pygmalion Effect.

The Pygmalion Effect is a classic of Social Psychology, understanding it helps us better understand how mental limitations are formed in kids.

It is useful for us to identify the origin of any programs we have installed in our minds.

What you are going to read now is a small excerpt from my book Groups and Group Dynamics: Contact in the Intergroup and Prejudice.

The Pygmalion Effect

A study conducted by the University of Oldenburg established that a non-traditional name triggers prejudice (Taino, 2009).

A group of researchers led by Professor Astrid Kaiser sent two thousand teachers from the German Grundschule (elementary school) an anonymous questionnaire with very direct questions about personal and educational reactions that different names caused in them.

The result is an embarrassing snobbery.


The traditional names such as Jakob, Lucas, Simon, Maximilian, Alexander, Hannah, Sophie, Charlotte, Marie by the vast majority of those interviewed, are connected to the picture of a good, disciplined and dedicated student. It is as if the students with the names Giovanni, Andrea, Luca, Giulia all deserved a good grade.

Less common names, often chosen after international celebrities, instead provoked an immediate negative judgment in more than half of the teachers: Kevin seems to be the worst for them, but also Angelina, Chantal, Mandy, Maurice and Justin are likely to be rejected before they even start.

The prejudice is worrying.

But German research touches a delicate point: from the moment it is more likely that families that choose names inspired by television and film stars are less educated and perhaps less well-off, it is clear that discrimination becomes social.

Above all, however, the teachers’ prejudicial negative attitude weighs on student’s performance.

Professor Kaiser claims that expectation is the mother of all results.

It has been shown that if a coach does not believe in the potential of an athlete, he/she will not perform to the best of his /her abilities, the same applies to school, if teachers do not believe in the potential of their pupils the performance of these students will decrease.

Particularly in primary school, where encouragement is important, especially in the case of students from immigrant or very poor families who need confidence, but instead encounter prejudice and handicap from the very beginning.

The risk that the Kevin’s and the Angelina’s will forever carry a wound with them caused by prejudice is high.

The problem is not just Germany’s. Similar studies in the United States have given similar results.

And snobbism in terms of names is a reality in all societies with a high level of immigrants and very much influenced by media models: school should however not be a victim.

Psychologists have found that people treat others as they expect to be treated.

In other words, those who expect to be cheated are often cheated on, those who live in fear of being abandoned, are often abandoned, those who expect to be betrayed find unfaithful partners.

Psychologists have called this correlation, the “Pygmalion” effect.

The Pygmalion effect can manifest itself at school, at work, in a relationship between employer and employees or within the family, in relationships between parents and children and in all those contexts where social relationships develop.

Therefore, expectations can affect the quality of interpersonal relationships and the performance of the subjects.

Pygmalion, in the myth narrated by Ovid, was a sculptor, he was single and did not have a partner, and therefore had a great desire to give love.

His desire exploded one day when he finished a statue of a woman he had worked on for a long time, to the point that he intensely prayed Venus to make him meet a girl who was as beautiful as his statue.

Venus, who was moved with compassion, granted his wish, and in the evening, when Pygmalion returned home, he saw that the statue had come to life.

In an elementary school in California, the team led by the American researcher Robert Rosenthal, came up with the idea of an experiment to carry out in social psychology, where a group of pupils undertook an intelligence test (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1992).

He subsequently randomly selected a small number of children, without considering the results and the ranking of the test, and informed the teachers that they were very intelligent students.

After a year, Rosenthal went back to the school, and verified that his selected students, who had been randomly chosen, had fully confirmed his forecasts, greatly improving their academic performance to become the best of the class.

This effect, that in in this case was beneficial, manifested thanks to the positive influence of the teachers who succeeded in stimulating in the pupils, as reported by Rosenthal, a lively passion and a strong interest in their studies.

The open and stimulating attitude of the teachers helped to develop talents and skills in the children that had been underestimated, up to that moment.

A subsequent research conducted on this Pygmalion effect at school showed that it is due to the different way that teachers treat pupils that they expect the best results from: they behave in a more affectionate way towards them, giving them more time to respond to difficult questions, assigning more demanding tasks to them and more frequently notice and reinforce the activities undertaken independently by these children (Rosenthal, 1994).

Ultimately, teachers, consciously or unconsciously, create an environment that promotes better learning for these students, that is, an environment in which their expectations regarding student advancement end up becoming self-fulfilling predictions (Cooper & Good, 1983 ).

As stated before, unfortunately the Halo and the Pygmalion Effect, two factors of similar nature, can compromise the reliability of a teacher ‘s judgment on the advancement of a student.

I’d like to tell you story from my high school days.

My first two oral tests on philosophy did not go well, I still remember the grades; both D+.

Lesson after lesson I was fascinated by the subject and I began to seriously study, it had become one of my favorite subjects.

Despite my passion for philosophy my grades over the 3 years, were never more than Cs, except in the last two oral tests during the last year of school when I got a B- and a C+.

I still remember very well how outrageous some of the oral tests where.

Some of my classmates, in spite of very inadequate preparation, were able to safely get B’s, they benefitted of the positive effect of the previous tests.

Let’s go back to my last oral test, where my grade was C+.

I was tested together with one of my classmates who had always got marks between B’s and A’s-.

Although I did much better in the test, she got a B.

The “funny” thing was that I was praised for my progress, while my teacher told the other student that she had not done as well as she usually did, she was almost told off for this.

Often when students get bad grades and they justify them because they are persecuted by the teachers, they are only unwilling students who do not accept their responsibilities.

However, sometimes, the opposite can happen: especially in pre-school or primary school, often the way teachers feel about their students count more than the objective behaviors of the children in determining the grade of conduct.

This is the message perceived by a study carried out by the Manchester Metropolitan University, published and financed by the “Economic & Social Research Council”.

The British researchers worked with 4 and 5 year old students, paying particular attention to their behavior and to the assessment criteria of the teaching staff.

It was discovered how crucial the first 4 weeks of school are: in that period, the teacher will formulate a judgment that will be very difficult to change, even in front of evidence (MacLure, Jones, Holmes and MacRae, 2008).

Moreover, this dogmatic judgment will also be transmitted to his colleagues.

Imagine working for two different employers: employer A and B.

Employer A has had negative experiences with his previous employees, therefore he wants to be careful, he does not want to get caught up again.

He is convinced he can’t expect too much, he thinks that young people are all incompetent, with no desire to work.

In fact, he does not have enough trust in you to give you an interesting job, he only gives you small unqualifying tasks.

Terrified by the fact that you could be lazy he constantly monitors you, without giving you the least amount of personal autonomy.

Moreover, he has no respect for you and tells you this every chance he gets, as well as telling you off for small, unimportant things.

After a few months of being treated like this, in which state of mind would you go to work in the morning?

You would probably start to feel de-motivated, start to lose any interest in your work and behave accordingly, you would turn into a lazy and flat employee.

So, within a few months, the negative forecasts of employer A would be confirmed.

Employer B is by nature an optimist.

He expects a lot from you, but he does not ask you for the impossible, he knows you will make mistakes, but he knows that they are part of your learning process.

He leaves you a wide margin of autonomy, but at the same time he is always available to give you any suggestions and clarifications you may need.

Employer B notices your progress and you feel that your work is recognized and valued also from an economic point of view.

Which employer are you more likely to work with?

You would probably produce more with the last one, even if he does not constantly monitor you like the first boss does.

Moreover, by comparing the two employers, you can understand why one always finds employees who eventually turn out to be lazy, and the other, on the other hand, finds good employees.


Bibliographical references

Cooper, H. & Good, T. (1983) Pygmalion grows up: Studies in the expectation communication process. New York: Longman

MacLure, M., Jones, L., Holmes, R. e MacRae, C. (2008) Becoming a problem: how and why children acquire a reputation as ‘naughty’ in the earliest years at school. Economic and Social Research Council

Rosenthal, R. (1994). Interpersonal expectancy effects: A 30-year perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 176-179.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1992) Pygmalion in the classroom. Expanded edition, New York: Irvington Publishers

Taino, D. (2009) La ricerca tedesca: Gli insegnanti non credono negli alunni e il rendimento diminuisce, Corriere della Sera, 20 settembre 2009


This is a small excerpt from my book “Groups and Group Dynamics: Contact in the Intergroup and Prejudice”. You can find it in bookshops all over the world (such as Barnes & Noble, Wallmart, Booktopia, Waterstones, Book Depository, Kobo, Amazon), but most of all you can find it in the Zelary.

The Zelary is my bookshop where you will find books for mind for your mental growth.

Want to reprogram your mind and eliminate your mental limitations?

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