The Pygmalion Effect in the Classroom: What It Reveals

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom? How do teacher expectations impact student performance?

The Pygmalion Effect shows that high expectations can actually improve someone’s performance. As an example, in the classroom, the Pygmalion Effect reveals that teacher expectations can dramatically affect student test scores.

Find out more about the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom below.

The Pygmalion Effect in the Classroom, Explained

Not only can your mindset impact your own outcome, but it can also contribute to the outcomes of others. This phenomenon is captured in what scientists have deemed “the Pygmalion Effect,” which reveals that believing in someone else’s potential can actually help manifest that success. In this article, you’ll learn about the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom.

The following example shows the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom. Researchers tested elementary school students and then told their teachers that three of the students had demonstrated extraordinary potential. Despite the fact that researchers told the teachers to treat those three students exactly the same as the rest of the students, the three students’ test scores skyrocketed by the end of the year. The twist, however, was that those students’ original scores had been average; the experimenters had deliberately misrepresented their abilities to the teachers. Although the teachers had not consciously given the students any special attention or encouragement, the teachers had unknowingly and nonverbally communicated their heightened expectations—and the three students had picked up on their teachers’ subtle messages and risen to their expectations. 

This phenomenon can also be seen in workspaces: Research shows that if a manager believes employees are only motivated by money, the workers will behave accordingly—but if the manager believes the workers are internally motivated, the workers’ outcomes will improve. When you understand the power of the Pygmalion Effect, you can look at every interaction with colleagues and employees as an opportunity to recognize their skills, encourage them, and promote positivity. Because of the power of a leader’s perspective on her team’s success, leaders should ask themselves three questions at the start of each week:

  1. Do I believe that my employees can improve their knowledge and skills?
  2. Do I believe that they are inclined to make the effort to improve and to find meaning in their work?
  3. How am I communicating my confidence to my employees?
The Pygmalion Effect in the Classroom: What It Reveals

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Happiness Advantage summary :

  • How happiness isn’t the result of success, it’s the cause of it
  • The benefits of happiness—from increased creativity to improved health
  • Strategies for adopting a positive mindset and raising your happiness baseline

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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