by Kim Pederson…….
I came across an interesting term recently: Pygmalion effect. Of course today I cannot remember the context of our chance meeting but, what the heck, I recalled the phrase itself and will cling to that as some small evidence that my mental capacity has not deserted me altogether (yet). The PE, also known as the Rosenthal effect, is a phenomenon in which higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. To put it in Rosenthal’s words, “what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” (The opposite of the PE — fodder for a later blog perhaps — is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance, something we’ve seen way too much of lately.)
As you might have guessed, the PE takes its name from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, the play that later became an opera as well as the stage and film musical My Fair Lady. Crazily enough, the Three Stooges even did a version of it in a film called Hoi Polloi. They played garbage collectors who took a shot at being gentleman under the tutelage of a professor who bet money he could gentrify Moe, Curly, and Larry. As you might expect, things did not go well.
In Shaw’s play, prompted by a similar bet, the learned Professor Henry Higgins attempts to teach the lowly Cockney Liza Doolittle to speak English impeccably. His goal is to get her to the point where she can pass as a duchess at a posh upper-class garden party. (And no, Ricky Nelson was not there.) Shaw took his story idea from myth of Pygmalion, a king of Cyprus who fell in love with an ivory statue of Aphrodite and then, through fevered wishful thinking, brought it to life and then married it…ah…her.
So what’s the point of all this? To make every person a better person and thus the world a better place. In a Time magazine article titled “How to Use the ‘Pygmalion’ Effect,” author Annie Murphy Paul explains that higher expectations lead the people doing the expecting to act differently toward the objects of the expectations. For teachers, this involves adopting a “warmer” approach, giving promising students more to do, encouraging shy learners to contribute more, and offering specific positive feedback to challenged students as opposed to a generic like “good job.” In short, she says, if we act like someone has great potential that person will more than likely live up to that potential.
You, like me, probably would like more proof that the PE works before investing any time in it. The key, again, is to act like we have high expectations even if we don’t. We might as well start with our greatest challenge. Let’s begin an online YouTube campaign where millions of us say this on camera:
“Donald, we know it is difficult for you but we all know you can do better. We know deep down that you have the utmost respect for all women, immigrants, people with disabilities, minorities, and foreigners. We expect to see this respect emerge in every aspect of your life from this point forward. This may be the first time anyone has ever told you this, but we believe in your ability to be humble, compassionate, caring, courteous, truthful, and generous. In short, nothing can stop you from making us proud, Donald.”
“What’s that you say, Donald? Why should you do this? For us, Donald. For us. Because…we’ve become accustomed to your face. You almost make the day begin. We’ve grown accustomed to the tune you whistle night and noon. Your smiles, your frowns, your ups and downs are second nature to us now, like breathing out and breathing in. We were serenely independent and content before we met. Surely we could be that way again. And…yet…we’ve grown accustomed…well, you get the idea.”
It could work. After all we need some kind of contingency plan should he become president. And, as Donald might put it himself, what have we got to lose?
*Image from the 1913 production of Pygmalion. Public Domain.
Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.