The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion Effect: Mirroring Expectations

How do the expectations other people have for you affect the expectations you have for yourself?

According to a study highlighted in the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, if random strangers think that you are going to be “sociable, poised, humorous and socially adept,” it is likely that you will portray yourself that way. And if they don’t think you’re going to fit those characteristics, you probably won’t.

In the study, a group of 51 women volunteered to take place in a communications study in which they would each be having a brief phone conversation with a randomly selected man.

The men were also signed up for a communications study, but what they didn’t know was that the information they had been given about the women they were to be talking to had been falsified. Each man was given a bio of the woman he was to speak to and each bio had a photograph of the woman. Half of the photos were models selected for physical beauty. The other half was less attractive, plain looking women.

Prior to their talk, the men were asked to fill out an “Impression Formation Questionnaire.” Although the biographical information was identical, the men who thought that the woman was physically attractive wrote that they expected her to have the positive traits listed above. The men who saw the unattractive photos expected the woman they were to speak with to be “unsociable, awkward, serious and socially inept.”

The conversations took place and the participants engaged in the usual chitchat of strangers like the weather and their college majors.

The interactions were each recorded and the men’s side of the conversations were edited out. Then, the women’s sides of the conversations were presented to a panel of ordinary people who knew nothing about the conditions of the study. This jury was asked to fill out the same Impression Formation Questionnaire about the women whose voices they had heard.

Interestingly, the opinions of the jurors reflected the opinion of the men who had seen the fake photos. When the woman in question had been expected to have positive traits, her side of the conversation reflected those characteristics.

How did this happen?

According to the authors, “The answer lies with the subtle power of the chameleon effect. Remember that before the men had exchanged a single word with the ‘beautiful’ women, they had already thought of them as socially graceful, funny, composed and collected.

Once the men had formed this opinion, it affected every aspect of how they interacted with the women. Imagine if you were talking on the phone to someone whom you believed to be attractive. You’d likely be more engaged, listen more actively and generally find yourself more immersed in the interaction.

When the ‘beautiful’ women spoke with their mysterious strangers, they couldn’t help but react to the cues the men were sending. Without realizing it, they took on the characteristics that the men expected them to have. The researchers explained, ‘What had initially been reality in the minds of the men had now become reality in the behavior of the women.’ The women unconsciously picked up on the ‘beautiful’ opinion the men had of them and acted accordingly. In other words, being thought of as beautiful made the women actually think of themselves as beautiful and exhibit ‘beauty’ in their conversations.”

This phenomenon is known as either the Pygmalion Effect or the Golem Effect depending on whether the expectation being mirrored is positive or negative.

Something that I love hearing from Barefoot clients who transform their bodies is how much the process changes their life. When they say this, they really mean that every aspect of their lives has improved alongside the changes they’ve made in their bodies. I think that the Pygmalion Effect is a factor in this.

I’ve discussed the Halo Effect before, which is a similar phenomenon in which the way people perceive you and the expectations they form of you are affected by your physical appearance. When these perceptions take a positive swing, the mirroring created by the Pygmalion Effect will in turn affect your sense of self. You’ll suddenly feel a greater sense of independence, intelligence, attractiveness and capability because the world around you is expecting the same.

Consider the power you have here in that you can control, to a significant degree, your physical appearance, the way the world perceives you and in turn your self perceptions. It’s a means of taking happiness into your own hands.

Is your body telling the world what you want it to about you? If not, what is holding you back? You can write this story yourself. No matter where you are, the means necessary to change your body are available. It’s on you to make the decision to take control.

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