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The Pygmalion Effect: How We Become Who We Are

by on June 17, 2013 6:50 AM

Human beings are interesting creatures.

Scholars in the field of human studies have examined all sorts of variables in the quest to understand what makes us tick. The impact of nature (our genetic code) and nurture (our environment) in determining who and what we become has been examined from too many angles to count.

My latest interest is in what is called labeling. How does the label that each of us is given in our families, at school, at work and in our social networks impact who we become?

Case in point; my middle daughter was born with a full head of thick, dark hair that stuck straight up in the air. We tried bows, headbands and even gels to get that hair to stay down but inevitably it would spring back up.

It was quite comical. People responded to our little girl with laughter and, more importantly, language based on that hair. Is it a coincidence that she is my “funny kid” who looks for (and usually finds) the humor in most situations?

Through labeling, people become who we expect them to be.

In 1968, researchers Rosenthal and Jacobson conducted groundbreaking research into what has come to be known as the Pygmalion effect. First, they administered an intelligence test to elementary school children. After the test, the researchers identified the “high performers” and reported those results to the teacher with instructions not to share that information with their students.

The key point was that, unbeknownst to the teachers, the high performers had been selected at random and without regard to their actual test scores. Lo and behold, at the end of the year, those random students ended up being the high performers.

This observer-expectancy reaction was named after a character in Greek mythology, Pygmalion, who served as the basis for a play by George Barnard Shaw and later “My Fair Lady.”

The conclusions from Rosenthal and Jacobson’s research as well as the others who have found similar results when testing the theory in others settings (the military, in the workplace, in youth sports) suggest that we see people through the lens of expectations, change our behaviors based on those expectations and they then respond based on those behaviors.

Researchers have examined the behaviors of teachers, coaches and managers to see if there are differences in how we respond to people we have labeled either positively or negatively.

Not surprisingly, we provide less praise and encouragement, offer less feedback, have fewer verbal contacts and are more critical of those who we have negatively labeled. Conversely, our behaviors in response to those who we have labeled positively are more supportive and encouraging.

I’ve seen it in my classroom at Penn State. I am the only person who teaches a required course for the major and the minor. If, for whatever reason, a student needs to repeat the class, they are stuck with me again.

In 20+ years of teaching, I have learned there are many different reasons why a student either drops or fails a course so I try to start off the next semester with a clean slate and of course, never point out that student in class. However, the student who is repeating the class often shares with his or her small group in the new section that it’s a second go-around.

While common sense might suggest one would question the abilities, motivation, etc. of a student who has to take a course a second time, I have observed the opposite phenomenon. The new students consistently put the repeater in the role of expert or experienced group member.

The unsuccessful student last semester becomes the leader this semester, sometimes to his or her chagrin. I have seen it happen enough times that I am convinced that the impact of being labeled positively has a positive impact on individuals in the class (to say nothing of the benefit of familiarity with course material). Ironically, my expectation that students who repeat the class will be identified as leaders on their second attempt may be impacting the situation as well.

It reminds me of the “Clever Hans Effect” we were taught in introductory psychology. Hans was a horse in who could allegedly solve math problems by tapping out the answers with his foot. He and his trainer toured pre-war Germany giving demonstrations.

People were amazed. Others were skeptical. Eventually, scientists asked to study Hans’ amazing talent. When his trainer either didn’t know the answer or was hidden from view, Hans’ math ability dropped to almost zero. Go figure. The so-called magic was in Hans’ response to the trainer’s subtle changes in body posture, muscle tension and facial expressions rather than in his math knowledge.

We can apply that to people. Let’s say I expect people with disabilities to be angry and resentful. A person in a wheelchair then comes into my place of business and asks if there is an accessible restroom.

I see that person and hear that question through the filter of my stereotype. I then respond with language and body posture based on my perceptions. Defensive. Self-protective. The customer with the disability in turn responds to me and reacts with volume and hostility. Voila! Just as I thought. People with disabilities are angry and resentful.

Social scientists have subsequently identified what they call the “circular effect” related to the concept of labeling. I may not know how you’ve labeled me but, in response to your behaviors, there is a pretty good chance that I will become the label you have given me.

Positive and negative labeling are equally powerful. If we label a student as a Dumb Jock or a Brainiac, it should be no surprise that they become those labels. Ask any younger sibling who gets the same teacher or coach who taught an older sibling. The employees under our supervision respond to our biases and behaviors based on labels regarding race, age, gender, ability or disability.

The labeling theory has also been tested in the opposite direction. Students, athletes and employees change their behaviors based on the label of their teacher, coach or supervisor. For example, students who were told in advance that a teacher is “hard” respond differently in terms of effort, communication and so forth than with a teacher who they have been told is as an “easy grader.”

It’s a different kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The implications for teaching, coaching and achievement in the workplace are pretty obvious. According to the experts, just being aware of the impact of labeling is the first step in preventing it. Being aware of potential biases, using objective evaluation criteria and basing interactions on current information – rather than on labels and pigeon-holing – encourages personal growth and individual achievement. This is especially true for people who work with children and adolescents; young people can and do change and mature in their learning, motivation, coordination, etc. as they develop.

Human beings are interesting creatures. Much of what we do is based on our nature. Some of it is based on our environment. Hopefully, none of it is based on labels.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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