A colleague and I were talking about books yesterday when the topic veered to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. She had read the book as part of her school syllabus, but couldn’t quite remember the story. While digging up information about Pygmalion, we came across a description of The Self-fulfilling prophecy, or the Pygmalion Effect. I’ve reproduced part of that writeup here. The part in italics is particularly insightful.
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.