The Pygmalion Effect

Dan Miller wrote this story in his August 18, 2009 newsletter:

I was Shocked! « Dan Miller’s Blog
Our mind can complete the expectations we have!

Recently I installed three new poles and decorative lights on the driveway approach to our house. Although I enjoy being a handy man, electrical work always makes me nervous. I rented a trencher, dug a narrow ditch and carefully laid the line in the trench. I then proceeded to install the outlets and run the line up each pole before completing the power attachment at our house. Twice in this process I recoiled with the stinging shock of electric power surging through my arms – but wait – there was no power yet attached. I hadn’t connected the line to the power source. Just the “anticipation” of power convinced me I had already “felt” a serious shock.

I find I’m not alone in this mysterious happening. Commonly known as the Pygmalion Effect, scientists say this phenomenon occurs when “a false definition of the situation evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” In other words, once an expectation is set, we tend to act in ways that are consistent with that expectation, even when it’s not true.

I have had this experience with electricity, though not to the extent Dan reports here.  I’ll grant him poetic license to make the story interesting. It sounds familiar, and interesting, and similar to some other effects (notably the Placebo Effect).

Wikipedia’s entry for Pygmalion Effect also reports on an experiment familiar to me.  A number of school teachers were given a new class of students.  Some of the teachers were told that they were getting a group of exceptionally gifted students.  Others were told that their class was a bit slower.  All of the classes performed as expected – the “gifted” classes progressed much farther than the “slow” classes — even though students in all classes were randomly assigned.

In this experiment, Rosenthal predicted that, when given the information that certain students are brighter than others, elementary school teachers may unconsciously behave in ways that facilitate and encourage the students’ success. The prior research that motivated this study was done in 1911 by psychologists regarding the case of Clever Hans, a horse that gained notoriety because it was supposed to be able to read, spell, and solve math problems by using its hoof to answer. Many skeptics suggested that questioners and observers were unintentionally signaling Clever Hans. For instance, whenever Clever Hans was asked a question the observers’ demeanor usually elicited a certain behavior from the subject that in turn confirmed their expectations.

The bottom line is that our minds to affect our perceptions in a powerful way.   Your attitude will have a powerful effect on your life and your happiness (and apparently that of those around you).  I have seen expectations (sour attitudes) ruin vacations, jobs, homes, and marriages.  Used for good, a positive attitude will make your job better, your spouse prettier, and even make the weather better.  Really.  (but don’t overdo it and fall prey to the Pollyanaism.)

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