The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain

Do you know what the Pygmalion effect is? It is how our expectations of others can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The principle is illustrated in a play called Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. In that story, a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle is trained by a professor who says that he can pass her off as a duchess. He teaches her to walk correctly, to use the correct utensils, and to speak correctly by having her run through drills, such as “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”

He pulls it off, but Eliza says to a friend: “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 like a lady, and always will.”

An experiment conducted on children in 1968 by psycholo­gist Robert Rosenthal illustrated the effects of the Pygmalion principle. All of the children in the experiment were given a test of intelligence. After the test, 20% of the children were cho­sen randomly and their teachers were told that according to their test scores, these children were about to undergo an intellectual growth spurt and make surprising gains over the next eight months.

There was no actual difference in those children from the rest of the children—except what their teachers were told about them. At the end of the school year, the children were retested. Rosenthal says that the children who were in the experi­mental group—where false high expectations had been planted in their teachers’ minds—showed significantly greater gains than the control group. The teachers’ expectations affected their treatment of all the children, and resulted in greater gains by the experimental group.

Do you ever wonder if you’re unwittingly placing expectations on others in your life because of some trait of theirs or belief of yours? It’s useful (especially when we’re around family during the holidays) to examine where we might be experiencing our own Pygmalion effect.

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