The Pygmalion Effect
Greek mythology, psychology, parenting, and leadership!
How to make people fulfill all your expectations!
Here's a story from Greek mythology that will make you a better lover, manager, parent, and teacher:
Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, was a very skilled sculptor. Once he was working months and days tirelessly carving a female figurine out of marble.
When he was done, he took a step back and got submerged in the awe of his creation. The sculpture was his most beautiful creation ever — almost life-like. By the time he regained his sanity, he fell in love with her.
He named her Galatea, which meant: “she who is white like milk.”
Pygmalion would bring her gifts, shells, ornaments, birds, and flowers to charm her. He would grace her with rings, bracelets, and necklaces, and dress her up in fine silk dresses.
He would caress and kiss Galatea’s statue and spend hours talking to her. He was madly and passionately in love with a woman who could never love him back.
Impressed by his devotion to the statue, Aphrodite, goddess of sex and beauty, brought her to life. Pygmalion and Galatea married soon after.
Psychology of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
At the first glance, the story of Pygmalion sounds like just another mythological story with very little to learn from. But at the very core of this tale, there is a significant idea that’s a very psychologically relevant tool.
Think of it like this: Pygmalion passionately loved his marble with every inch of his heart and treated her as if it were a real person. He had no doubts about it — she was as real to him as the girls in his neighborhood. In the end, the fiction he created for himself got manifested in reality (I promise I won’t talk about the law of attraction).
This was a breakthrough lesson in the history of humanity. We learned for the first time that how you treat a person can influence their entire personality — that your expectations of them can make them act differently.
The Seed of My Writing Career
My colleagues and friends always ask me when did I first start writing and what pushed me into it. I never really cared to think of an answer to that question. I just shrugged it off with modesty.
However, I think it is important to talk about it in the context of this blog. Here’s a snippet from my 6th grade about what got me into writing:
It was a regular school day. Our english teacher was going to hand out our unit test answer sheets. Her flow was ritualistic: She’d announce the marks and give the sheets with a little mockery on how bad you did at the test.
When my turn came she said that I got pretty average marks, but there was one thing she was impressed about: my writing!
At once I thought she was being sarcastic about my bad handwriting. She sensed it and clarified that it’s not about it. She was talking about my writing skills and she wasn’t fooling with me.
We had to write an informal letter to our friend describing our birthday party. Most students followed the basic monotonous trope. While I added some flavours of storytelling to it — by adding cute cliffhangers and elements of suspense.
She applauded infront of the entire class for my creativity. That was the best I ever felt in my school.
From that day onward, I became the writing guy of the school. Any competition or presentation, she would loop me in. She had expectations, and I had the burning desire to fulfill them. To keep up with the pace, I started to write more and more, and get better at it.
And that's how it all started. This one to Rita ma'am. It wouldn't have been possible without you.
Data Behind The Theory
The idea is simple: teachers’ expectations about individual children become self-fulfilling prophecies. If a teacher believes a child is slow, the child will come to believe that, too, and will indeed learn slowly. The lucky child who strikes a teacher as bright also picks up on that expectation and will rise to fulfill it.
The Research behind this finding is solid. In 1968, psychologist Rosenthal (founder of the Pygmalion Effect) found out that students who were expected to perform well scored better marks than those who weren’t. Rosenthal also claimed the former group also experienced a greater IQ change — but it was probably just bad science and the Pygmalion effect does not affect IQ.
Pygmalion Effect in Parenting and Management
The original study on the Pygmalion effect was centered around kids in school but it turns out that this psychological effect has a great deal of application in management and parenting.
If you are a team lead or manager:
Create high-performance expectations for your subordinates. Communicate those expectations clearly in their KPIs & OKRs. If you want to learn how to set SMART KPIs — read this!
Tell them that their intellect and competence are high and that is why the expectations have been set high as well. Tell them that you have faith in them and they will be able to fulfill the set goals. Trust me, they will give it their everything to reach that bar for you.
If you are a parent or elder sibling:
The Pygmalion effect is the best tool to make sure that your kids grow up into respectful and responsible citizens1. But it's equally difficult.
Children are more impressionable, so the impact of PE on their personalities is amplified. They will be quick to pick up cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language to sense what you expect from them.
If they sense any frustration in your verbal and non-verbal communication when they ask stupid questions, they might start acting stupid in a while. The best response to your kid’s absurd questions (if you don’t know the answer) is “I don’t know, what do you think about it?.” Now just sit back and observe their creativity spur into action.
Set specific expectations, communicate and express them in a positive tone, and make them believe that they are fulfilling those expectations even if they are not. Once you create this illusion for them, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If your employee is acting lazy, tell them that you love their energy and spirit of productivity. Tell your entire team: “this guy works & delivers fast!”
If you think your partner never asks you about your day, compliment them for the opposite sincerely out of the blue: “I love it how you always ask me about my day at work.” If possible do that in the presence of her friends.
People will do anything to hold the integrity of the myths you’ve created for them. Turn your expectations a part of their identity.
Appreciate your patience in reading this long essay. I know I am publishing after a very long while — things have been changing pretty fast in my career: kudos to your constant support and motivation! 🙏
I have been feeling guilty about not being able to return the favor. This newsletter is a lot more than just a place for my writings — it is a part of my identity. Not writing anything here has been eating me up from the inside.
I am going to write less frequently. Probably once a month. But I will do my best to make it worth your time. It took me months, but I have figured out better time management strategies to post something regularly.
This blog might not be my best work, but it was very necessary. I needed to write something. And I'm glad I did. It broke the activation energy barrier for me. What comes next is going to be 100X better than this! Stay tuned. 🚀
Forward this to your friends who want to improve their cognitive capacity! Let's think better.
It matters a lot on the kind of person you are as a parent. If your expectations are skewed, your kids will optimize accordingly. You need to be a good person before you become a good parent.