The Pygmalion Effect or “Expectancy Advantage”

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady – take your pick), Professor Higgins claims to be able to change Eliza Doolittle from flower-seller to duchess. He’s pretty successful, but as Eliza says to the Professor’s friend Pickering:

“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.”

And there, in a nutshell, is the Pygmalion effect. How you treat someone affects how they perform.


Pygmalion in the Classroom

In 1968, Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, a Principal of an elementary school in San Francisco, published “Pygmalion in the Classroom“.

Daniel Schugurensky describes the what they found:

In the experiment, Rosenthal and Jacobson gave an intelligence test to all of the students at an elementary school at the beginning of the school year. Then, they randomly selected 20 percent of the students – without any relation to their test results – and reported to the teachers that these 20% of students were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and could be expected to “bloom” in their academic performance by the end of the year. Eight months later, at the end of the academic year, they came back and re-tested all the students. Those labeled as “intelligent” children showed significantly greater increase in the new tests than the other children who were not singled out for the teachers’ attention. This means that “the change in the teachers’ expectations regarding the intellectual performance of these allegedly ‘special’ children had led to an actual change in the intellectual performance of these randomly selected children.

Accel Team have listed some ways that teachers (and managers for that matter) communicate expectations. These include:

  • Waiting less time for lows to answer questions
  • Criticizing lows more frequently than highs for incorrect
  • Praising lows more frequently than highs for marginal
    or inadequate responses
  • Providing lows with less accurate and less detailed feedback
    than highs
  • Interrupting lows more frequently than highs

While it’s probably a useful checklist, further Rosenthal & Jacobson research suggests that the effect happens at a much lower level. In 1992, they

… showed that 10 secs of video without sound of a teacher allows students to predict the ratings they will get as a teacher. Similarly hearing the sound without vision AND without content (rhythm and tone of voice only) were enough too. This is powerful evidence that teachers differ in ways they cannot easily or normally control, but which are very quickly perceptible, and which at least in students’ minds, determine their value as a teacher.

Kind of frightening. How well your students do seems to be decided within the first 10 seconds of walking into the classroom.

Some implications
Steve Draper, a psychologist at Edinburgh, has some fantastic notes on what this might mean for teachers and education.

Tim O’Shea once told me that in all studies where one of the variables was the teacher, the effect of different teachers was always bigger than the effect of different treatments (usually what was meant to be being studied). Basically, teachers have a huge effect but one we don’t understand at all…. Assuming this is true, this is the most important effect in the whole field of education.

As Steve points out

if this was true in medicine, then it wouldn’t matter much what treatment you gave a patient, the most important thing would be to get the best doctor regardless of drugs, surgery or other treatments.

The implications Steve lists are as follows:

  1. the professionalistation of teaching does not help an improvement in learning, other than from a social standpoint, and regulations to exclude the worst practitioners,
  2. teacher training, other than giving the trainee more experience in a classroom, does not necessarily improve.

    if we don’t know what it is about teachers’ behaviour that has such large effects on learning, how can we usefully train them? … while it is quite possible that teachers learn either by unaided practice, or by unconscious imitation of other teachers (apprenticeship learning), there is almost no evidence on whether that training makes a difference.

  3. “learner-centered” approaches and theories such as neo-constructivism are

    “flawed because they do not acknowledge or give a place to teachers of the prominence that they in fact have in the causation of learning.”

All grounds for serious thought. One point that I’m still struggling to come to terms with is how it relates to the “Generation Me” issues Danah pointed to. If the Pygmalion effect suggests that letting students know they can do well affects their performance positively, and the book focuses on the social chaos that can result from relying too heavily on the “I can be anything I want” school of though, then where, oh where, is the balance to be struck?

Anyway, below are some notes on the original Pygmalion and other incarnations, if anyone’s interested.

The Myth
Ovid [Metamorph. Bk X:243-297] seems to be the first source for Pygmalion. The short, gutted version is this: Pygmalion despises the lewdness of the locals, and spends his lonely time instead honing his sculpture skills. He sculpts his ‘ideal woman’, Galatea, from ivory, and such is his skill that he ends up adoring with the statue. Venus eventually fulfils his wish and brings the statue to life.

Dryden et al. were more poetic:

Pygmalion loathing their lascivious life,
Abhorr’d all womankind, but most a wife:
So single chose to live, and shunn’d to wed,
Well pleas’d to want a consort of his bed.
Yet fearing idleness, the nurse of ill,
In sculpture exercis’d his happy skill;
And carv’d in iv’ry such a maid, so fair,
As Nature could not with his art compare,
Were she to work; but in her own defence
Must take her pattern here, and copy hence.
Pleas’d with his idol, he commends, admires,
Adores; and last, the thing ador’d, desires.

translated into English verse [17thC] under the direction of Sir Samuel Garth by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve and other eminent hands

Pygmalion Revisited
The myth has been reinterpreted in numerous ways over the years and in most art forms. Dryden, Burne Jones, Goya, Schiller, Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodin, George Bernard Shaw, Woody Allen and others have all revisited the story.

And different interpretations emphasise different aspects. In the Middle Ages, Pygmalion served as a warning of the excesses of idolatry; in the 18th and 19th centuries, the sculpture came to life cold and unresponsive to the overtures of her adoring creator; and in perhaps the most famous reworking of the story, George Bernard Shaw used it as a basis for a comedy of class and manners.

And lest we forget, there was Mannequin.