The Pygmalion Effect, the Impact of Expectations and the Importance of Context

Pygmalion by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786, Musée National du Château et des Trianons
Pygmalion by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786, Musée National du Château et des Trianons

The Pygmalion of Greek myth was a sculptor. He carved an ivory statue – Galatea – so beautiful and realistic that he fell in love with it. At the altar of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, he wished that she would come to life, as he had no interest in other women. When he returned to the statue, she came to life and they went on to marry and have children. His name has been lent to the Pygmalion Effect – the more positive the expectation placed upon someone, the better they perform.

The Pygmalion Effect

This is also eponymously called the Rosenthal effect, after Robert Rosenthal, who conducted a number of experiments into self-fulfilling prophecies. In 1968, he, alongside Lenore Jacobson, published “Pygmalion in the Classroom”, incorporating a study at Oak School in California. In the experiment they randomly identified around 20% of the students as having particularly high potential for the coming year and they then informed the teachers about these particularly talented individuals. The results showed that, for younger pupils, being labelled as high potential delivered a statistically significant improvement in IQ increase above and beyond that achieved by ‘normal’ students. Thus the first evidence for the impact of expectations on performance was found and a new area of research was born.

This study, however, created just as many questions as answers – why were only the younger children affected? Does that mean expectations play no role for adults? Could it be due to teachers giving more support to those students (and thus less to the rest), meaning the effect can’t be used to benefit everyone in a group? Was any effect due to the teacher’s expectations or was it due to the students identifying themselves as a strong performer?

Research at around the same time (1968 and 1970) by Major Wilburn Schrank looked into these questions, to varying extents. He used similar treatments to the experiment above, but Schrank’s experiment was conducted at the US Air Force Academy Preparatory School (ages 17 and over) and labelled whole ‘sections’ (i.e. classes) as more or less talented. In the 1968 study the teachers were told the labels were authentic, whereas in the 1970 study they knew it was random, while everything else was kept the same. In the 1968 study, the same effect was seen as for the younger pupils at Oak School, showing that the impact of expectations continued beyond youth and that whole groups could benefit (One major caveat – there was no control for how much effort the teachers invested in each group outside of the classroom, such as lesson planning). In the 1970 version there was no effect, revealing that  teachers’ expectations were the key variable rather than the students’ beliefs. This still only looked, however, at a narrow age range and a very specific work environment.

In 2000, both Nicole Kierein & Michael Gold and Brian McNatt conducted meta-analyses of the Pygmalion Effect within work organisations, providing us with some more thorough answers. Kierein & Gold looked at 13 different studies within organisations and found that there was a significant effect (for the statisticians out there, the overall effect size was a d value of 0.81 – for the non-statisticians, Cohen said anything over 0.8 represented a “large” effect), while McNatt looked at 17 studies, finding an effect size of 1.13.

So overall we can be confident that, when looking across a whole population, there really is a Pygmalion Effect. It is not, however – and as ever – that simple…

The Opposite – Golem’s Emergence

Every silver lining has its cloud, and the Pygmalion Effect’s counterpoint is the Golem Effect – if we have negative expectations of someone then they are dragged down by them. In fact, both meta-analyses found that the Golem Effect exceeded the effect size of its Pygmalion brother (to reassure readers that psychologists aren’t too evil, the Golem Effect isn’t tested by randomly designating people as incompetent. Researchers ask managers what their expectations are for their staff, and then actively tell them that their expectations should be average rather than low for a randomly selected portion of those designated ‘low expectation’. Therefore the ‘control’ group is the one that experiences the Golem Effect and the ‘treatment’ group is de-Golem’ed).

A representation of a Golem
A representation of a Golem

Therefore restraining the negative is at least as important as maximising the positive. This is particularly important if expectations are part of a zero sum game (i.e. if designating some as ‘high expectation’ means others become ‘low expectation’). This can happen naturally; we baseline our expectations based on the people around us and then judge people relative to the baseline. If you suddenly start working with an exceptional employee, then you might reasonably wonder why the others aren’t as good – even though before working with the exceptional employee you thought they were all fine.

That’s one reason why holding expectations for a group can be useful, particularly if it’s the group who’s performance is most important to you (and, equally, the group which is most influenced by your expectations). By placing expectations on a group you avoid the need to compare members within that group to define your baseline.

Differences Matter

It turns out that the Pygmalion Effect, while prevalent, varies in size depending on who you are and the environment you’re in. The meta-analyses found three specific moderators on effect size (I really can’t emphasise enough that it is only possible to identify moderators that we record, by definition, so we’re unlikely to see anything too subtle. Only the very basics about participants are normally recorded – there are a number of other potential, but unproven, moderators).

The first moderator they identified is gender. Both analyses found that men were more strongly influenced by expectations than women. It seems likely that this is a societal and cultural effect – and these analyses are now 15 years old and relate to research older than that. Senior levels within organisations were more male dominated then and men had increased opportunities; this may have motivated men towards trying to fulfil expectations or the men in leadership positions may have invested disproportionately more in ‘high expectation’ men – the reasons aren’t clear.

More recent research (2008) by Gloria Natanovich and Dov Eden showed that the gender of the ‘expecter’ was not, at least in a specific environment, an important variable, while also suggesting that ‘expectee’ gender didn’t matter either. As workplace culture becomes increasingly balanced, these results suggests that biases in Pygmalion effect will gradually fade away. In the interim, however, we need to be aware of how workplace biases can play a role.

Secondly, effect size is influenced by initial expectations and/or performance. The lower the initial expectations, the larger the impact of the Pygmalion Effect. This follows logically – the greater the scope for change in a variable, the larger any effect should be.

Thirdly, workplace environment has a significant influence. In particular, both analyses found a stronger impact in military environments than in other workplaces. Perhaps this is due to the hierarchical environment in the military leading to people investing more in living up to their manager’s expectations, in comparison to the less ingrained and less linear (you’re not as strongly ‘owned’ by any one person) relationship in non-military organisations.

There are individual differences everywhere
There are individual differences everywhere

This reflects a broader concept – which stretches far beyond the Pygmalion Effect – that I believe could use a lot more attention; analysis of the differences in the impact of psychological phenomena on different groups (here I am simply defining a group as a number of people who share any specific trait). It is both easy and useful to have a global analysis; it provides more straightforward actions, while only needing random samples from the total population to identify an effect. It’s also controversial and complicated to start to look at actions that would be targeted at specific segments. It could, however, help both employees and employers and it is, in my opinion, something we should explore.

Maintaining Awareness

As a final twist in the Pygmalion tale, we need to think about assessment of the quality of someone’s performance. In general terms, our perception of performance follows this equation (this applies equally to products as it does to people):

  • Perceived Performance = Actual Performance – Expectations

Therefore the higher our expectations, the lower our perception of the quality of the same actual performance (for example, if I bought a watch for £10 and it broke after a couple of years then I’d think that was fair enough. If I bought a watch for £500 and it lasted a couple of years, then I’d feel ripped off).

The Pygmalion Effect means that raising expectations of employees (or students) can lead to increased actual performance, as we know. But if the increase in expectations is larger than the increase in performance, then we can still end up perceiving a decrease in performance. Therefore we are disappointed in delivery, probably express this to others and suppress future performance.

We need to be aware of this and do what we can to act to correct against it. Using objective metrics enables us to make direct comparisons, but mostly we just need to reflect on this when thinking about how individuals (and groups) are performing.

By understanding our expectations, and how to use them, we can improve performance, increase individual motivation and appropriately recognise people for their successes, making this a topic worth exploring – after all, Pygmalion did, eventually, get the girl.

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When Getting Paid Makes You Worse at Things

We’re always looking for our dream job and whatever that consists of – money, power, pleasure or any other motivator. For lots of us, it’s trying to make enough money doing whatever we enjoy most in the world. Research into motivation, however, suggests this might be even more difficult than it sounds.

For many centuries, science (at least Western Science) only recognised two forms of motivation: biological (i.e. the need to drink, eat and reproduce) and external motivation (i.e. the rewards and punishments delivered by the environment you find yourself in). Logically that felt sensible and, as a paradigm, could be used to explain the vast majority of behaviour.

The arts, as is often the case, were ahead of the game. In 1876, Mark Twain wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, in which Tom tricks his friend into doing a task he finds particularly dull (whitewashing a large fence) by suggesting that it is actually the most exciting thing anyone could possibly do. Following on from this, Twain wrote “that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”. Further, Twain observed that the wealthy choose to do things for fun (e.g. driving horse-drawn passenger coaches) that others are paid for, “but if they recite-1l8kw8lwere offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign”. Daniel Pink – whose book “Drive” I would highly recommend and inspired various parts of this post – even decided to name this change in motivation in response to whether something is mentally classified as work or play the “Sawyer Effect”.

Twain had noticed something that it took science a fair few more decades to realise – there was a third form of motivation. There is an intrinsic pleasure in doing certain tasks, which can’t be explained by either biological need or external stimuli (although it can be influenced by someone convincing you that a task is really exciting!). In fact, I was prompted to write this post because it is that intrinsic motivation that makes me write; I enjoy the process of writing and I find it a rewarding experience in itself.

Firstly I’ll have a look at some of the science behind this form of motivation, before offering a few practical tips on how we can cultivate this motivation in the workplace.

The Science 

Anyway, when science got round to catching up, it did so by chance – another repeating trend. In 1949, Harry Harlow (alongside Margaret Harlow and Donald Meyer) was studying how different organisms learn, on this occasion by studying rhesus monkeys (before launching into his accidental discovery, it’s worth noting that Harlow did make huge progress in the studies of affection and learning). These monkeys were to solve a simple mechanical monkey-166942_1280problem and, in order to get the  monkeys comfortable with the equipment, the puzzle was placed in their cages. To the surprise of the experimenters, the monkeys immediately focused on solving the puzzle. They seemed to be showing both determination and joy. By the time the experimenters wanted to test them, they were already highly capable of solving the problem, due to their unexpected practice habits. These monkeys had not been shown how to solve the puzzle, they’d not been encouraged to do so, they’d received no reward and yet they still did it. It was in response to this that Harlow raised this intrinsic form of motivation – the “performance of the task provided intrinsic reward”.

Harlow wanted to test how strong this motivation was – could it beat out one of the two conventional motivations? He ran the same experiment again, using the same test, but providing a food reward to the trial monkeys. To his surprise the monkeys with a food reward performed worse than those without – they made more mistakes and were slower. The introduction of a reward actually reduced performance, a potentially revolutionary finding. But it was a bit too anti-establishment and no progress was made for another 20 years, when a scientist called Edward Deci decided to push at the boundaries of motivation again – this time with humans.

Intrinsic Motivation in Humans?

Deci wanted to test whether paying someone to perform a task made it intrinsically less interesting. To do this he used a Soma cube – a set of pieces that can be arranged into different shapes – and a group of university students, who he divided into two. All the students were presented with three drawings of Soma configurations and were asked to assemble them. When they had configured two, Deci left the room to, allegedly, get a fourth drawing. In reality, this was the key stage; he wanted to know what they students did when he left the room. Would they keep playing with the cube or would they do something else (various papers and magazines were left around as possible distractions)? Both groups of students had to do this every day for three days.

A Soma cube sofa
A Soma cube sofa

The difference between the two groups of students was that one would never be paid based on their performance – they received no performance related pay on any of the three days – while the other received no payment on day 1, did receive payment on day 2 and were then told that the money had run out and they would not be paid on day 3.

During the period Deci was out the room (8 minutes), the unpaid group played with the Soma cube for about 4 minutes each of the three days. The other group spent about 4 minutes on the Soma cube on Day 1, behaving similarly to the unpaid group. On Day 2 (when they were paid) they got, understandably, a lot more interested in the cube and played with the puzzle for over 5 minutes – they were trying to get a head start on the third and fourth puzzles. This was as you’d expect. The big test, however, was day 3. This group, not paid for day 3, became disinterested in the cube, only playing with it for less than 3 minutes – less than when they were paid, but also substantially less than the group who’d been unpaid all three days.

The payment of money had reduced the intrinsic interest in solving the puzzle. It delivered short term motivation and enhanced focus on Day 2, but reduced interest in it afterwards. Money was like having a sugar boost; it made things better for a while, but worse afterwards.

What can we do?

Alongside other research (such as Glucksberg, 1962 and 1964 – which showed that offering rewards reduces creativity, as people narrow their focus and reduce their ability to think laterally), this suggests that the typical offering of most employers – if you do this, then you’ll get paid that – isn’t the best, or most consistent, form of motivation (particularly as you have to keep handing over more and more money).  It is, however, the easiest and most visible form of reward, so organisations have stuck with this.

There are other options though. Given that we now know that making a task into ‘work’ both reduced productivity and creativity, we need to find ways to either make tasks less work-like or specify less of the tasks that have to be completed at work.

Let People Do More of What They Want

Google’s famous 20% time – where it allows its employees to use 20% of their time on their own projects – makes sense when combined with our learning above. Valve, the game developer, might well argue that 100% of employee time is spent on work that has some intrinsic motivation; it, theoretically at least, has a flat structure where people are free to work on whatever they want (the idea being that the best ideas draw the most people together).

By giving people this freedom you’re allowing them to spend time on what intrinsically motivates them, so they can deliver more productively and creatively. Now 20% may well be too much – it might not be industry appropriate or it might be too big a first step – but trying out a smaller percentage makes sense. It’s also worth testing, so run a trial. You don’t have to commit forever.  Finding a way to give employees time to work on things that both help the organisation and are their own choice is a real win-win.

Give People Purpose, Not Tasks

General George Patton, a US Commander during the Second World War, said of his experiences “never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surecite-eu71trprise you with their ingenuity”. By giving people direction, but not specifics for how to do their work, you can prevent tasks becoming ‘work’. This also lets people play to their strengths and bring in other people to help them reach their goal. This additional freedom, or even sense of freedom, helps maintain stable intrinsic motivation.  Further, it means people have a clearer understanding of why they’re doing their work – and we’re predisposed to wanting to know “why?”.

Create Diverse Teams

By creating teams with a wide range of skills and experiences, you generate an environment where interaction is encouraged (primarily because it’s the only way not to get left behind). This means people are often brought into the work of others, so everyone spends time working on topics outside their normal remit. This serves two purposes: you develop a greater sense of buy-in to the team’s purpose, enabling more understanding of, and motivation towards, that goal; and employees get to use previous experiences to solve current “non-work” (for them) problems. Together this means people are more likely to maintain their intrinsic motivation at work, amongst many other non-motivation related benefits.

Create a Peer-to-Peer Benefit System

As we read earlier, tasks become work when you’re rewarded for doing them. For humans in an organisational environment it’s a bit more complicated – it depends where the reward is coming from. It also depends on why you feel you’re being rewarded. If your boss gives you a pay rise because you met all the targets you were set, the tasks you were doing were most likely ‘work’. If yhandshake-442908_1280our peer gives you a bonus because they were really impressed with something you did, then that’s very different – you feel like you’re being recognised for your own skills, abilities and personality rather than doing specific tasks. By creating a peer-to-peer system, you remove the hierarchicaoval of intrinsic motivation.

Involve People in Goal Setting

If you can involve people in setting their own goals, while keeping them ambitious and aligned with the organisation’s objectives, then you’ll be able to internalise the goal. By changing targets from something that is thrust upon employees to something that they have had a role in deciding, you make that objective meaningful to the individual – they were involved so must think it is a ‘good’ thing (and due to cognitive dissonance, if they believe that they were involved, they will come to think that the target is worthwhile, even if it isn’t what they would have chosen beforehand). This can make financial and intrinsic motivation align, leading to great performance.