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The Pygmalion Effect: Can it Be Universally Applied?

By Edited Nov 30, 2015 5 4


What Is it?

The Pygmalion Effect is a communications theory that has gained remarkable attention not only in the field of communication theory, but also in art and culture. The theory itself stems from an old story in Greek Mythology about a prince who created the perfect woman and prayed successfully to the gods to give her life.

This eventually led to the creation of Pygmalion Effect Theory; the psychological phenomenon that people tend to fulfill the expectations that other people have of them. This theory has been studied and applied broadly with much success, especially in the fields of education and business.

But like most theories, circumstances exist where it seems to be ineffective. With so much time, money, and effort being spent modeling organizations after this theory, perhaps it would be prudent to investigate how universally applicable the Pygmalion Effect is and what its limitations are.

Mentorship and its Origins

The mentor is a central figure in this phenomenon. According to Jie Chang [1], the theory gained notoriety after an experiment conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1968. They were able to show that student academic performance improved when students were treated like they were intelligent.


Throughout time, this effect has appeared in various cultural media. Plays like Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and movies like My Fair Lady and Trading Places all portray characters whose lives are transformed by mentors. [2]

During my years in boarding school, small student-to-teacher ratios coupled with mentorship shaped many of my goals and successes. This concept of mentorship also comes from Greek Mythology where Odysseus left his son under the care of his good friend Mentor. Odysseus expected that he would do a good job, and he did.

This became the basis for our concept of what a mentor is today, someone who is trusted and wise, willing to share his/her wisdom and knowledge with a less experienced student or colleague.


As the theory continued to gain popularity, many “good Pygmalion” traits were adopted by mentors in real-world situations, especially in the fields of education and business. Educators and supervisors were encouraged to take on traits associated with the theory. According to S. C. Poornima and Diwakar Chakraborty [3], a study conducted on 109 employees of a company labeled Merryline Ltd which measured employees’ thoughts about leadership, self-expectancy, motivation, and performance showed that there is a correlation between employee performance and supervisor expectation.

Real world Application of the Theory

Studies done in real-world educational settings have yielded similar results.

Following a case study conducted on 47 students, Chang concluded that “there is no doubt that teacher motivation and teacher enthusiasm influences student motivation and student performance.”

However, few theories exist without flaws, and we find in some cases that the Pygmalion Effect can become ineffective when certain circumstances exist.

Unlike experiments where the parameters are clear and controlled, the real world contains a myriad of factors that contribute to daily work and school life. According to Susan White and Edwin Locke [4], “the workplace today differs in important ways from the schools and military settings from which much of or knowledge of this effect has been derived.”


There are a larger number of women in the work force today. Many of the subjects from previous studies were male. Studies have found that the longer supervisors know their subordinates, the less effective the theory is.

In the role of the mentor, implementation of Pygmalion Effect techniques raises ethical questions due to the subconscious nature of its application. Also, frequently there is no standard training developed to assist supervisors in their roles.

In education, Chang noted that online learning environments and poorly structured tests led to an “Anti-Pygmalion Effect” where students were shown to perform more poorly under the influence of the Pygmalion Effect due to the autonomy of web-based education.


Taking all of these factors into consideration, the question arises: Is it possible that this theory is inaccurate or merely outdated?

In my estimation, the theory holds merit; however, perhaps it can be modified to accommodate the social, business, and educational changes that have occurred. If it does in fact address our human nature, then perhaps disclosure of its use will not nullify it.

More consideration can be given to those unique characteristics that students and subordinates bring with them to work and school. Research can be conducted to explore new ways for educators to mimic the effect in a virtual environment.

 With these modifications in mind, used positively, The Pygmalion Effect can continue to be an asset in achieving success through positive outside expectations.

My Fair Lady
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Mar 21, 2014 4:37am
People always look for a God to believe in, so when they dan't find one they tend to create one!
Mar 21, 2014 4:37am
People always look for a God to believe in, so when they dan't find one they tend to create one!
Mar 21, 2014 10:31am
Interesting article! I think this effect has not changed significantly except that current thinking probably dictates that positive expectations set from within oneself will have a disproportionately greater effect compared to externally set expectations...hence if there were a clash the former will likely take over.
Mar 21, 2014 6:58pm
Good point. There's no motivation like self motivation. Thanks for the comments.
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  1. Jie Chang "A Case Study of the “Pygmalion Effect”: Teacher Expectation and Student Achievement." International Education Studies. 4 (2011): 198-201.
  2. Paul Loftus "The Pygmalion Effect." Industrial and Commercial Training. 27 (1995): 17-20.
  3. S. C. Poornima, Diwakar Chakraborty "The Dynamic of Pygmalion Effect in Organizations." IUP Journal of Soft Skills, . 4 (2010): 49-56.
  4. Susan White, Edwin Locke "Problems with the Pygmalion Effect and Some Proposed Solutions." Leadership Quarterly. 11 (2000): 389-415.

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