Can you motivate high performance with high expectations?!? The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect helps you think about how your expectations of other people can influence or motivate their performance. It argues that by setting and communicating high performance expectations, you can motivate better performance from the people you lead and manage.

The effect was originally studied in context of teachers' expectations of their students: Students who are expected to perform well usually do so. Those students of whom teachers have lower expectations will generally perform less well. However, this approach has clear application in the corporate world.

Rosenthal-Jacobson study

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968/1992) report and discuss the Pygmalion effect at length.[1] In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children did indeed show that enhancement.

The purpose of the experiment was to support the hypothesis that reality can be influenced by the expectations of others. This influence can be beneficial as well as detrimental depending on which label an individual is assigned. The observer-expectancy effect, which involves an experimenter's unconsciously biased expectations, is tested in real life situations. Rosenthal posited that biased expectancies can essentially affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies as a result.

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 that then 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. For example, Clever Hans would be given a math problem to solve, and the audience would get very tense the closer he tapped his foot to the right number, thus giving Hans the clue he needed to tap the correct number of times.

Student rating of teachers

Although not of central importance here, of huge importance in educational research in general is the issue of teacher effects on student progress, and how students rate those teachers. Tim O'Shea has said that in all studies where one of the variables was the teacher, the effect of different teachers was always larger than the effect of different treatments (usually the actual subject to be studied). In essence, teachers are known to have a large impact on learning faculties but the reasons are poorly understood.

Note too that all this casts doubt on the value of training teachers, apart from giving them practice to learn for themselves; without knowledge of what it is about teachers' behavior that has such large effects on learning, training them usefully could be considered impossible (but see Teacher education). In the absence of this knowledge, the only measure of a teacher's worth is the comparative learning outcomes of their students. So while it is quite possible that teachers learn either by unaided practice or by unconscious imitation of other teachers (as an apprentice), there is almost no evidence on whether that training makes a difference.

The Pygmalion effect is one big demonstration of the effect of teachers, showing they can double the amount of pupil progress in a year.

Rosenthal & Jacobson (1992) also mention, briefly, research that showed that just 10 seconds of video without sound of a teacher allows students to predict the ratings the teachers will receive. Similarly, hearing the sound without vision and without content (rhythm and tone of voice only) were enough too. This was viewed as strong 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. Marsh's (1987) work shows that student ratings of teachers do relate to learning outcomes.

Feldman & Prohaska (1979) performed an experiment to study the effect of student expectations of teachers. One group was told their teacher was "quite effective," and another group was told their teacher was "incompetent." The effect of these positive and negative expectations were measured in terms of student attitudes toward the teacher, scores on tests, and "nonverbal behavior" of the students toward the teachers. The teacher was blind (see: double-blind) to what the students thought about him/her. There were clear differences in all three measures based on a positive or negative expectation. Students with a negative expectation "rated the lesson as being more difficult, less interesting, and less effective." Students with a positive expectation scored 65.8% on the test, and those with a negative expectation scored lower, at 52.2%. In terms of nonverbal behavior, subjects leaned "forward more to good teachers than poor teachers." There was some evidence that students with a positive expectation had better eye contact with the teacher. Overall, the expectation of the teacher affects overall learning outcomes.


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A change agent who successfully led and supported HR transformations across a variety of industries, making significant progress in reducing costs and improving operating effectiveness through HR system and process improvements, organizational excellence programs (EFQM Model), shared services, centers of excellence, outsourcing and employee self-service. Commercially oriented and capable of driving the best practices in the areas of HR business partnering, talent management, total rewards, performance management, talent acquisition, HR information systems and localization.