Many of the judgments we make daily, although they may seem sensible to us, are, in fact, far from rational and can lead us to make bad decisions. These erroneous judgments are called cognitive biases, and some 250 different ones are known to date. While the teaching profession encourages the development of critical thinking skills, the learner-teacher relationship is nevertheless conducive to the development of some of these biases, and they can have a significant impact on learning. The Pygmalion effect is one of them, and the first step in preventing it is to know more about it.

Self-fulfilling prophecy: from the lab to the school

The Pygmalion effect (or Rosenthal and Jacobson effect), was named after the legend in Greek mythology according to which the sculptor-king Pygmalion fell in love with Galatea, his creation, a statue brought to life. The Pygmalion effect occurs when the simple act of showing someone that you believe in their chances of success influences their performance, especially if you are in a position of authority or influence over that person. It should be noted that the opposite of the Pygmalion effect is sometimes referred to as the Golem effect, which occurs when a person in a position of authority judges an individual’s ability to succeed to be limited, and the individual performs less well as a result. In social psychology, the Pygmalion effect and the Golem effect correspond to the phenomenon of “self-fulfilling prophecy”, which occurs when a mistaken belief leads to its own fulfilment.

In 1968, psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson published a book that caused a stir: Pygmalion in the Classroom. This book recounts their year-long experiment in an American school where they misled teachers with false IQ tests into believing that some of their students were gifted. To some extent, the teachers’ fresh perspective on these students led them to significantly improve their performance on both IQ tests and in their academic subjects.

Before studying the Pygmalion effect in a school, Rosenthal had discovered the phenomenon in an experiment with two groups of his students, who had to analyze the performance of lab rats walking through a maze. The first group of students were led to believe that the rats he gave them had been severely selected and therefore presumed to be “smarter” than average. In reality, the rats had been randomly selected, as had those assigned to the second group of students, whom Rosenthal had this time described as not exceptional and probably even genetically disadvantaged for the task. The students in the first group behaved affectionately towards their rats, whom they believed to be at an advantage. In contrast, those in the second group did not behave warmly towards their supposedly disadvantaged rats. According to Rosenthal’s hypothesis, at the time of the test, the rats in the second group performed less than those in the first, some not even leaving the starting line…

A phenomenon under the magnifying glass

Since the publication of the book Pygmalion in the Classroom, several studies have been carried out on this effect, in particular, to evaluate better its power, its limits as well as the factors that can amplify or diminish it. The existence of the phenomenon has indeed been confirmed, as reported by David Trouilloud and Philippe Sarrazin in their synthesis of the studies devoted to it in the 30 years following that of Rosenthal and Jacobson: “In all this research, an SP [self-fulfilling prophecy] was demonstrated when a teacher’s belief or expectation of a student changed the attitude of the former towards the latter, who ultimately tended to conform to the teacher’s belief.”

In 2006, Trouilloud and Sarrazin, for their part, analyzed the phenomenon for a year by following about 20 teachers and some 400 students, uncovering the stages in which the Pygmalion effect unfolds, and which go as follows:

  1. Anticipation: a phase during which the teacher is influenced by the information received about his or her learners and, as a result, “forms differentiated expectations of them.”
  2. Behaviour: a phase in which the teacher’s expectations lead to “special treatment of students that manifests itself in unique academic tasks, feedback and emotional support” … which also leads to behavioural change in the learners who perceive this differentiated treatment and internalize the teacher’s view of them.
  3. Outcomes: The differential treatment of the teacher towards learners changes the learners’ outcomes.

The teachers facing their inner Pygmalion

Countering the Pygmalion effect in the teacher-learner relationship is not simple, mainly because, as Trouilloud and Sarrazin point out, demonstrating differentiated expectations of one’s pupils or students is not necessarily harmful and may even denote a quality teaching approach: “The practical implications of work on the Pygmalion effect are not negligible (for reviews of the literature, see Good and Brophy, 2000; Weinstein and McKown, 1998). First of all, it is essential to remember that it is natural for every teacher to develop differentiated expectations because every student is different. To the extent that these expectations are specific and regularly updated, they are an aid to planning student learning. However, when they are based on poor indicators (e.g., bias and false stereotypes), and/or when they are too rigid, then they are likely to lead to inequities among students.”

Since these “bad indicators” are part of the mechanism that produces the Pygmalion effect as well as other cognitive biases (see Cognitive bias: when our brain plays tricks on us), every teacher must be aware of this phenomenon and seek to protect themselves against it, to promote the success of every learner. According to developmental psychologist and neuroscientist Olivier Houdé, the way to do this is to develop “cognitive resistance” or “learning to think against oneself” (see The 3 speeds of thought). Trouilloud and Sarrazin, for their part, suggest “encouraging the teacher to have high expectations for his or her students”, referring to the study by Madon and colleagues who observed that the positive impact of high expectations seems to outweigh the negative impact of low expectations on the part of teachers towards their learners. According to their synthesis, Trouilloud and Sarrazin note that high expectations contribute in four ways to optimizing learner success, as teachers are more likely to:

  1. Create a warmer emotional climate.
  2. Provide more information on performance.
  3. Provide more content and content more challenging to learn.
  4. Provide more opportunities for learners to answer and ask questions.

That said, if teachers can make efforts to be more attentive to the expectations they have of their learners and try to have as many positive expectations as possible, it would be, as Trouilloud and Sarrazin put it, “naïve to believe that teachers can be trained to develop only positive expectations.” The main reason for this is that some of these behaviours are unconscious, and they are highly complex, mainly because they involve the emotions, personalities and experiences of individuals. Besides, we now know about the creation of cognitive biases, of which the Pygmalion effect is a part: the fact that we have little control over these automatic thoughts from one of our three thought systems that generates them, and that we are quite inclined to believe these thoughts when, in fact, they are not rational (see The 3 speeds of thought).

Moreover, being an adult is not necessarily an advantage in this fight against cognitive bias. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, to whom we owe the concept of cognitive bias, has tried to make groups of civil servants and military personnel as well as students aware of the existence of cognitive biases. While his interventions with the latter group of young people proved very encouraging, his attempts to raise awareness among others were not very conclusive, since these adults had more difficulty recognizing their own illusions.

When he talks about the ability to train the inhibitory system, the thought system that allows us to fight cognitive bias, Olivier Houdé also notes that adults do not have the same flexibility as young people. “My team is regularly called upon to intervene in large French industrial groups, with engineers for example, but it has a cost, and it’s complicated because the brain is mature. Automation has been acquired for a long time. It is becoming difficult to resist it. On the other hand, it could easily be introduced into school curricula,” he explains. However, Houdé doesn’t encourage adults to give up on the illusions in their brains to which they are more accustomed. On the contrary, adults need to redouble their efforts, especially when they have in their hands the power to improve the chances of success for future generations.

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.