Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Pygmalion and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Your Life

The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, refers to the phenomenon that the greater the expectation placed upon people, often children or students, the better they perform. The effect is named after Pygmalion, a Cypriot sculptor in a narrative by Ovid in Greek mythology, who falls in love with a female statue he has carved out of ivory.

King Pygmalion of Cyprus searched for the perfect woman and when he could not find her, decided to create her. He carved a statue out of ivory and the result was so beautiful that you would have to touch the statue to confirm that she was not real flesh and blood. Pygmalion loved his perfect woman statue so much that he called her Galatea and gave her gifts daily. Pygmalion spent his days gazing longingly upon Galatea and her perfect but inaminate curves. He looked into her eyes, and he talked to her. He dressed and adorned her with beautiful clothing and jewels. He would lie her down on a couch covered with sumptuous pillows, spoiling her as if she was not made of ivory, but as if she were living and breathing, silently accepting his love.

One day he announced that he would wed his love. Of course, everyone thought he was mad and his advisors tried to stop his crazy plan but he believed so strongly that he prayed morning and night to Aphrodite, the god of love, for a woman as beautiful as his statue. Pygmalion ordered the finest wedding gown for his “bride”, the real bride he expected to wed. Aphrodite was so touched by his fervent belief, dedication and love that, on the morning of the planned wedding, she shot an arrow through the statue and brought Galatea to life.

The pygmalion effect, is a concept in psychology describing the behavior of individuals as people expect them to behave. Our expectations create a circle of self-fulfilling prophecies:

• We form certain expections of people or events.
• We communicate those expectations with various cues.
• People tend to respond to these cues by adjusting their behaviour to match them.
• The result is that the original expectation becomes true.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968/1992) report and discuss the Pygmalion effect at length, in relation to education and how teachers’ expectations of certain children can result in better or worse performance. They worked with elementary school children from 18 classrooms and observed how the teachers responded to the children when told that they were bright or low achievers.

"Edify a person in advance for the positive traits you want him or her to have, and you'll find them making a concerted effort to live up to your praise." - Bob Burg

Are other people’s expectations of us, positive or negative, causing this effect in our lives? Are we consciously or more likely, unconsciously, transmitting messages to others which cause them to respond in a way so eventually we can say, “I told you so.” As parents, teachers, bosses, it is good to reflect on the substance and intent of our verbal and non-verbal communication. Do we praise someone with words yet our body language communicates a different message?

We can't change anyone but if you want someone to change, change the way you feel about them. Nagging doesn't work but your attitude and belief about them will cause them to be and act in a different way.

"When you change the way you look at things the things you look at change." - Wayne Dyer

"Things do not change; we change." - Henry David Thoreau

I once heard a hypnotherapy case study about a boy with very bad asthma. His mother had tried every form of medical help. One day someone heard her say, “His asthma has been bad all his life, ever since his difficult birth.” The mother was encouraged to undergo hypnotic regression during which all the details of the birth were “rewritten” eg the colour of the midwife’s uniform was changed and every step of the birth was reprogrammed until the woman’s unconscious mind adopted a new version of her son’s birth. The boy’s asthma subsequently cleared up. Note that the regression was carried out on the mother, not the boy. Her expectations of his poor health from birth onwards were somehow causing him to manifest that poor health. A self-fulfilling prophecy indeed.

The Pygmalion effect is now recognized and sometimes taught in management training but not everyone realizes the effect of their words or expectations on others.

Further reading:
Source: Wikipedia - Pygmalion Pygmalion effect and the Greek myth of Pygmalion

An article on Human Resources relating to the Pygmalion effect

Article on the Pygmalion effect

Books on Pygmalion Effect at
Books on Pygmalion Effect at

©Antonia Harrison 2009 from Personal Development in the 21st Century . Visit for details of how hypnotherapy, NLP and personal development training can assist your own journey for change.

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