Pygmalion, from Greek myth, was a Cypriot who found himself “not interested in women” after he saw the ladies in his home town prostituting themselves (it seems they had irritated the goddess Aphrodite, and her idea of punishment involved a loss of shame and their whoring to exhaustion). But somehow, Pygmalion managed to overcome his puritanical disgust of the naked female form, and instead carved a (presumably nude) statue and called it Galatea. He was so overcome with his own artistry that he fell in love with it, and then begged Aphrodite for a bride that would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. In a moment of bizarre mercy, the capricious goddess brought the statue to life, and Pygmalion married her (it?).

Of course, you might think that this was a story that should have ended with Pygmalion being punished for his curious objectophila and rampant hypocrisy. Instead, the Pygmalion myth has become the parable for positive thinking.

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect is “the effect whereby the greater the expectation placed on people, the better they perform”. The corresponding phenomenon of “the lower expectation, the worse they perform” is known as the Golem effect. And the study that is usually referenced was conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968*.
*One of the many studies that were undertaken during that happy era when ethics were an added bonus but always optional.

The study’s experiment:

  • All the students in a single elementary school in California were given an IQ test at the beginning of the study. The results were not disclosed to the teachers.
  • Instead, the teachers were told that about 20% of their students would be expected to be classified as “spurters”. That is: they would do significantly better than their classmates over the year.
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson then selected 20% of the students at random, and these names were then revealed to the teachers as supposed “spurters”.
  • A year later, the IQ tests were repeated.
  • After a year of school, everyone had improved.
  • However, in the young classes (Grades 1 and 2), the supposed spurters did significantly better than their peers.

The conclusion: when people expect you to do well, they subconsciously alter their own behaviour (and thereby, the reality) to allow you to do better. And it particularly impacts children in their formative phases. Perhaps the teachers spent a bit more time with the more promising students, or sent more questions in their direction, or something along those lines.

Pygmalion in the Workplace

In 1971, Albert King presented a paper called “Self-fulfilling prophecies in training the hard-core: supervisors’ expectations and the underprivileged workers’ performance“. In his framework, the supervisor played the effective role of Pygmalion, and a set of welder trainees were somewhat-burly Galateas.

King told the supervisor about five trainees that showed particular aptitude for welding (in fact, they had been selected at random). By the end of the training program:

  • those five were the top-performers,
  • they were absent less often than the other trainees, and
  • they were voted by the other trainees as the people they would most want as co-workers.

The Good News

Given those findings, you might conclude that it’s the responsibility of supervisors to expect good things of you – and if you’re not doing well at work, it’s because your immediate superiors are already biased against you (or biased in favour of someone else).

But I’d hazard a bet that “expectations” are generally more dynamic than that. In most settings, there is no independent experimenter to tell your superior what a good or bad worker you are. Instead, you get hired because you were the best (or least-worst) candidate available, and there are hopes for your work ethic and a relatively blank slate of ‘let’s see how it goes’. Then, over the course of those first few weeks of employment, you get to be the originator of those expectations.

I mean, if you think about it, in ordinary day-to-day living our expectations of people are usually framed by that first date, or that first encounter, or that first project that you worked on together, and then that impression gets cemented with every subsequent encounter. Unless, of course, that first engagement is so memorable that you’re locked in from day 1.

But generally-speaking, provided that you’re not overly obnoxious, obsequious or unhygienic, people don’t tend to make their minds up straight away. You’ve got some leeway there to massage their expectations into line. #Empowerment

A Parting Observation

You might think “creating a good first impression” means going all-out on your first job, because it sets the bar high, and you’re more likely to achieve if your boss expects you to keep reaching it.

But it can also be a not-ideal thing. In two ways:

  1. if you do really well on a project that no one else wanted, then you might find yourself landed with all the unwanted projects (having demonstrated an aptitude for the menial and unexciting); or
  2. if you do exceptionally well because you worked through the night, then you’re going to be doing a lot of working through the night.

So while it’s fine to under-promise and over-deliver, try to avoid the over-the-top-deliver. Because sustainable expectations, eh? Better in the long-term.

Just saying.

Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at Or both.