Story from research: The Pygmalion effect
I would like to share a story with you. Imagine that it is near the beginning of the school year. You are sitting at your desk, and a scientist in a long white lab coat suddenly walks into your classroom one day. You have never seen her before and know nothing at all about her, and she is equally ignorant of you. She has you take a bunch of random tests, and then walks out, never to be seen again. Even though she has left forever, her visit is going to have made you, and some of your fellow classmates, smarter by the end of the year, and she won’t have to spend one second of extra time or effort in order to do it. In fact, she doesn’t even need to know anything about you to make it work! Would you believe that all she had to do to make you smarter was to tell a simple lie? And not only that, she didn’t even tell it to you, she told it to your teacher.
As amazing as it may sound, this is exactly what psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson managed to do with actual students and teachers. Their work has since been replicated numerous times in a variety of settings. Here is how it worked: First, they made up a totally fake test, which looked scientific enough to fool the teachers. They gave it a big, important sounding name “The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition”.
Next, the researchers took their fake test and gave it to real students. Then they made a list of students at random from the class roster, drawing names at random out of a hat. This is where the lie comes into play. Rosenthal and Jacobson then told the teachers that they had actually given the students a test which was proven to be able to spot otherwise undetectable potential in students who were about to undergo an “intellectual growth spurt”, which was another totally made up idea. The researchers then gave the list of random names they had created to the teachers, telling them that the students on it would “blossom” intellectually by the end of that school year and greatly increase their academic performance. They also told the teachers not to let the students know what was going on or that anything special had happened or was expected.
At the end of the year, they took a look at the students again. What do you think they discovered? Amazingly, when Rosenthal and Jacob looked at the report cards, they found that the students they had randomly assigned to be in the growth spurt category actually had (on average) become better students with higher IQ score!
They named phenomena the Pygmalion effect, after a play in which a poor serving woman effectively becomes a lady of class, transformed by fancy clothes and the power of positive expectations. The secret of the Pygmalion effect comes from how the new expectations the teacher had for the students changed how they treated those individuals.
The expectations the teachers had for their students subconsciously changed how they thought, felt, and acted towards those students. The teachers gave the “late bloomer” students preferential treatment; devoting more of their time and warmth intro trying to help those kids understand the material. They were also willing to spend more time explaining and correcting poor answers, rather than letting them go without constructive criticism.
The sad thing here is that all of the students could have potentially improved the same amount, if only the teacher had the better expectations of them (with limits involving time available). There is also some interesting research indicating that the expectations the students may have for a teacher affects teaching ability in a similar matter. So you may actually be making your teachers better or worse by projecting your preexisting expectations onto them!
Watch a short video, in which the researchers describe their own experiment:
Video: The Pygmalion effect