Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Pygmalion Effect

Do you believe that your expectations can shape your life? Have you heard that a sculptor who is in love with his sculpture in mythology made his sculpture alive and got married? But can a more tolerated and trusted student really exceed his or her potential? How much does your manager’s feedback affect your way of doing business and your motivation? Also, can a horse solve arithmetic equations?
Let’s look for answers to these questions together!
As it is already known, answers are sought for various phenomena in psychology and sociology. Most of the behaviors we perform in our daily lives are explained by these sciences. Research on expectations and feedback also gives meaning to the behaviors that we encounter both while shaping our social life and performing our profession in professional life. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s work examining the behavior of teachers and students is a striking example of how expectations significantly shape our lives. This effect, known as the Pygmalion effect, which we can adapt to various areas of daily life t, briefly describes a psychological phenomenon that is believed to lead to better performance in a certain environment or subject. This effect takes its name from Pygmalion, a sculptor in Greek mythology. Let’s take a look at the legend:

A Sculptor in Love with His Sculpture

Statues are magnificent works of art that we examine with interest and admire every detail. According to Greek mythology, Sculptor Pygmalion does not like the women in the period and region he lived in and sculpts the woman he portrays in his dreams. After making her statue in detail, he admires and falls in love with her statue so much that he makes various offerings and begs Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, to make his statue alive. One day, when he kisses his statue, his wish comes true, his statue turns into a living woman, and Pygmalion, who married this woman and was very happy, became the subject of psychological theories that are still spoken today. Sure, it’s a mythological myth, but it’s a precious torch for understanding metaphor and the power of expectations.


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Developing Student Experiments with High Expectations

A study known as the Rosenthal-Jacobson study tells that in an elementary school in California, an IQ test was applied and as a result of this test, the students in a class were gifted compared to the other students, and the teacher in the class was specially selected. Therefore, the expectation of the teacher who will teach in the class of those gifted students is changing; with the tolerance level, the motivation and effort to teach in that class increases. Although everything seems normal until this part of the study, the reality is different! As a result of the test, all of the children have the same intelligence level, the students who are gifted as a result of the IQ tests do not gather in a class, but the teachers do not know this… So what is the result? In the classroom, which is thought to consist of gifted children for a year, the teacher’s support of children’s development, the level of understanding when children make mistakes, and her expectations from them are at a very high level. The reality that emerges as a result of this situation is very striking! At the end of 1 year, the improvement of students in the supposedly gifted class is many times greater than that of students in ordinary other classes. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy!


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The Importance of Expectations in Education and Business Life

A valuable lesson to be drawn from the above study…
People we expect great things in life, people we believe in, can learn from their mistakes with our encouragement and can find the power to realize their potential because they feel that they are believed in their development and potential! In other words, every time we make people feel our positive expectations, we actually build steps where we contribute to their positive actions.
Tansu Yeğen, who received the Best CEO of Europe award, talks about this effect in his book ’40 Metotla Kariyerini Ve Kişiliğini Parlat! (2021)’, and underlines the importance of the way you give feedback in business life. The high-performance expectation stated by the leaders when they say “I know you will achieve the best” to their teammates helps motivation; On the contrary, he argues that the low expectation of a teammate who is believed to be underperforming can also undermine and hinder performance, let alone support and improve it. In that case, it would not be wrong to conclude that “the expectations of others from us are strong enough to affect a significant part of our way of doing business and motivation“.

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We hope that with the awareness we gained after reading these lines, we will not forget to send a greeting to Pygmalion while motivating people and making them feel our expectations, both in our social and professional lives.

A Horse That Can Do Arithmetic Operations(!): Smart Hans

Ready to take a look at where the Rosenthal-Jacobson work got its inspiration?
Let’s go to 1900’s Germany and meet the smart horse Hans and his teacher Wilhelm von Osten, the German math teacher who trained him. Osten claimed to have taught Hans addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractional numbers, musical notation, reading, writing, and German. Sounds very strange and hard to believe, doesn’t it? In a nutshell, Hans the Horse was answering the questions asked to him by tapping his hoof on the papers on which the answers were displayed. Moreover, the answers reflected the truth! So how was this possible?
Studies in animal psychology and phenomenology have shown that the horse does not perform mental operations, as thought, but responds by perceiving the expectations of its followers through small changes in their reactions. This was confirmed when it was realized that when the horse was blindfolded, it could not know the answers because it could not understand the expectations because the Horse could not see the audience. Even though it was quite interesting and successful for a horse to understand the expectations for its cognitive level and take action accordingly, contrary to popular belief, the horse could not solve math problems. Understanding expectations and the ability to act accordingly, settled in the literature thanks to Hans, and years later, he took his place in psychology with the “Pygmalion effect” for the research of self-fulfilling prophecies and inspired Rosenthal-Jacobson’s work.


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Is the Reverse of the Pygmalion Effect Possible?

We must realize the importance of negative expectations as well as the importance of positive expectations in life. Because negative expectations, negative body language, and behaviors such as prejudice may cause the motivation to disappear. This situation is explained as the “Golem Effect”. In other words, the golem effect is a situation where low expectations negatively affect a person’s behavior.
If we apply the examples given in our article to the golem effect; we can guess how the attitude of a leader who has low expectations from his colleague lowers motivation, how the teachers who do not believe in their students and even do not tolerate them very much, discourages that the student and we can find more examples, as well.

Reaching Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Of course, it is not possible to shape all of our lives with expectations. Believing and waiting for something to happen with an exaggerated and empty expectation without effort, and work can only be in myths and legends.
While fulfilling our responsibilities, getting feedback from experienced people, and dedicating ourselves to doing our best in order to realize and reach our potential will affect the expectations of those around us positively and will be reflected in the way they motivate us back.


As a famous phrase says: “You reap what you sow”. With the awareness and hope that these efforts, which will bring the proverb to our minds, will lead us to positive and effective pursuits in our business and private lives…

References and Future Readings

Akkurt, Z.S. (2020). Kendini Gerçekleştiren Kehanet Hakkında Bilinmesi Gerekenler. Dergice.

Budak, B. (2021). Ne Ekersen O Olur, Ona Dönüşür: Pygmalion Etkisi. [YouTube].

Çağlar, S. (2015). Matematik Yapabilen At: Akıllı Hans Efsanesi. Matematiksel.

Yeğen, T. (2021). 40 Metotla Kariyerini ve Kişiliğini Parlat!

Yıldırım, İ.F. (2018). Pygmalion ve Golem Etkisi.

Yirmilerim. (2018). Kendini Gerçekleştiren Kehanet | Pygmalion Etkisi. [YouTube].

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Sima Türküner

Hello there! I'm Sima Turkuner. I am a Political Science and Public Administration student at METU. I love to research, learn and share what I have learned. I would like to share with you my articles on topics that I find interesting.

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