Self-fulfilling prophecy or pygmalion effect at work

Better Management by Perception

The Self-fulfilling Prophecy or Pygmalion Effect

In 1911 two researchers with the unlikely names of Stumpt and Pfungst began an investigation of an even more unlikely horse named Clever Hans.

The unlikely thing about Hans was that he could add, subtract, multiply, divide, spell and solve problems involving musical harmony. Any number of animals had been taught to perform such tricks before, but they all had to be cued by their trainers.

The really clever thing about Clever Hans was that he could run through his repertoire even when his owner a German mathematician named Von Osten, was not present. The horse would answer questions for anyone. Von Osten swore he was mystified by the whole thing.

In 'Teachers and the Learning Process' (Prentice-Hall, 1971), Robert Strom describes what Stumpt and Pfungst learned. "Among the first discoveries made was that if the horse could not see the questioner, Hans was not clever at all. Similarly, if the questioner did not himself know the answer to the question, Hans could not answer it either... A forward inclination of the head of the questioner would start Hans tapping, Pfungst observed... as the experimenter straightened up, Hans would stop tapping he found that even the raising of his eyebrows was sufficient. Even the dilation of the questioner's nostrils was a cue for Hans to stop tapping."

In other words, unwittingly, people were giving the horse the correct answers by communicating their expectations to him via physical signals. Hans was able to pick up on those signals even subtle ones.

He was clever only when people expected him to be!

A management concept

As it is known and taught today in management and education circles, the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy was conceptualized by Robert Merton a professor of sociology at Columbia University. In a 1957 work called 'Social Theory and Social Structure', Merton said the phenomenon occurs when "a false definition of the situation evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true."

In other words, once an expectation is set, even if it isn't accurate, we tend to act in ways that are consistent with that expectation. Surprisingly often, the result is that the expectation, as if by magic, comes true.

An ancient myth

Magic certainly was involved in the ancient myth from which the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy takes its other common name. As Ovid told the story in the tenth book of Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion, a prince of Cyprus, sought to create an ivory statue of the ideal woman.

The result which he named Galatea, was so beautiful that Pygmalion fell desperately in love with his own creation. He prayed to the goddess Venus to bring Galatea to life. Venus granted his prayer and the couple lived happily ever after.

A modern update

That's where the name originated but a better illustration of the "Pygmalion Effect" is George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, in which Professor Henry Higgins insists that he can take a Cockney flower girl and, with some vigorous training, pass her off as a duchess. He succeeds. But a key point lies in a comment by the trainee, Eliza Doolittle, to Higgins' friend Pickering:

"You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady, and always will."

The bottom line?

Consciously or not we tip people off as to what our expectations are. We exhibit thousands of cues, some as subtle as the tilting of heads, the raising of eye brows or the dilation of nostrils, but most are much more obvious. And people pick up on those cues.

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