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The ’Pygmalion’ theory yields surprising effects


In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman that was subsequently brought to life.

George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 stage production, “Pygmalion,” promoted the adage, “The greater the expectations placed upon us, the better we perform.” That popular play of Shaw’s underwent several adaptations; two popular American versions are the 1956 stage production and the 1964 musical (movie), both titled “My Fair Lady.”

In “My Fair Lady,” Liza Doolittle, gives her explanation of the Pygmalion effect: “You see, really and truly, 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 (Col. Pickering) because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

In the 1968 study Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal designed, he showed that the way a person is treated can affect their behavior. The study, later dubbed the “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” demonstrated that the power of expectation can raise the IQ scores of schoolchildren.

Rosenthal first asked himself, “Do some children perform poorly in school because their teachers expect them to?” If so, he surmised, raising the teachers’ expectations should also raise the children’s performances.

To prove his theory he first experimented with rats. He gave each of 12 psychology students five rats of the same strain. Half of the students were told their rats had been bred for skill in running a maze. The other six students were told their rats, for genetic reasons, could be expected to be poor at running a maze.

From the onset, the rats which were believed by their handlers to have the higher potential did, in fact, perform better é while the rats which were thought to be dull made poor progress and sometimes failed even to start the maze. Yet the only difference between the two sets lay in the attitudes of their trainers.

How did the allegedly superior rats catch on to the fact that more was expected of them? Rosenthal reported that “The students with the ’bright’ rats gave their animals more attention and handled them more gently than did the students expecting poor performance.”

Next Rosenthal took his theory to actual classrooms. Pupils kindergarten through fifth grade in a cooperating school were given a “new test of learning ability.” Then, the following September, after the tests had been “graded,” the teachers were casually given the names of five or six children in each new class who were designated as “spurters” possessing exceptional learning ability.

What the teachers didn’t know was that the names had been picked in advance of the tests on a completely random basis. The difference between the chosen few and the other children existed only in the minds of the teachers.

Those same tests when repeated at the end of that second school year -- revealed the “spurters” had actually soared far ahead of the other children, gaining 15 to 27 IQ points. Their teachers described them as happier than the other children, more curious, more affectionate, and having a better chance of being successful in later life.

The only change had been one of attitudes. Because the teachers had been led to expect more of certain students, those children came to expect more of themselves. That’s the same reason Liza Doolittle will always be a lady to Col. Pickering.

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at or visit

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