Expectations can be powerful. Even if they’re never said out loud, the beliefs we carry in our minds can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
NARRATOR: There’s a Greek myth about a sculptor, Pygmalion, who carved a woman out of ivory. The statue became so realistic and beautiful that Pygmalion fell in love and started treating it like a real woman. He brought it gifts like pretty seashells and songbirds, dressed it in fine clothes and jewelry, and even talked to it—and after a while the statue, with Aphrodite’s help, responded by coming to life.
This, of course, is pure fantasy, but the science suggests that it’s easier to sculpt another person than you think. All you need is a belief. Here’s a common one: attractive people are more outgoing, warm, and interesting. In the 1970s, psychologists tested the power of this stereotype. They set up 10-minute phone calls (phone rings) between men and women who had never met.
WOMAN ON PHONE: “Hello?”
NARRATOR: They showed each man a picture of a woman and said, “This is who you’re talking to.” But it wasn’t. The photo was of someone else—someone either attractive or unattractive. Here’s what the psychologists wanted to know: would believing someone was attractive actually change her personality? The short answer was yes. If you listen to just the woman’s side of the call, you could hear it. (Woman on phone laughs) Regardless of their actual personality or looks, women believed to be attractive did become more likeable and friendly.
We call this the Pygmalion effect, when an expectation in one person’s mind changes how another person behaves—and it can go the opposite way too. Women believed to be unattractive became colder and more awkward.
WOMAN ON PHONE: “Uh . . . okay . . . I guess . . .”
NARRATOR: Experiments like this show us how powerful expectations can be. Even if
they’re never said out loud, our beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The Pygmalion effect refers to an expectation or belief inside Person A’s mind changing how Person B behaves.
In an experiment, when a man believed that he was speaking to a physically attractive woman on the phone, he acted in a way that made the woman behave more likeable and friendly.
The opposite also occurred: when a man believed the woman he was speaking to was unattractive, she behaved in a colder and more awkward manner.
To learn more about how our minds can shape others’ behavior, listen to our podcast “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies”.
“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it.” Watch this video by Canon Australia to see just how powerful our expectations can be.
“As a novice computer programmer, I always got the benefit of the doubt – because I looked the part.” From Philip Guo’s “Silent Technical Privilege”. (Slate)
Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1974). Physical attractiveness. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 7, pp. 157-215). Academic Press.
Snyder, M., Tanke, E. D., & Berscheid, E. (1977). InJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(9), 656.
Madon, S., Willard, J., Guyll, M., & Scherr, K. C. (2011). Self-fulfilling prophecies: Mechanisms, power, and links to social problems. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(8), 578-590.
“The Pygmalion Effect” was created and developed by Olivia Kang, Kirsten Morehouse, Evan Younger, and Mahzarin Banaji with support from Harvard University, PwC, and Johnson & Johnson.
Narration by Olivia Kang
Music was composed by Evan Younger and Miracles of Modern Science
Illustrations by Olivia Kang, with contributions from Kirsten Morehouse and Patricia Liu
Editing by Olivia Kang and Evan Younger.
© 2019 President and Fellows of Harvard College