Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

The Pygmalion Effect: who are you living up to?

In Personal Reflections on July 19, 2012 at 7:58 pm

A number of years ago I learned a powerful lesson about human behaviour. At the time I worked for Outward Bound and led groups of young people through the wilderness on personal development expeditions. On this one particular expedition, I experienced the dramatic and yet surprisingly effortless transformation of a young man who had previously been maligned as the school bully.

This particular expedition involved a group of about eighteen young people in tenth grade at school. They were about fifteen to sixteen years old, and about half of them were guys and the other half girls. The first person I met was the teacher who was along for the journey. She pulled me aside and told me that the school had been having particular trouble with a gang in this year level, and that I was ‘unlucky’ to be ‘dumped’ with the gang leader. I was told that he was trouble and a bully, and that if he stepped one foot wrong he would be expelled.

I had the good grace fortunately to not take on what this teacher had told me. Like all Outward Bound groups, my mission was to extend unconditional positive regard and take them as they came. I simply went into the experience with the expectation that they were capable of compassion, integrity and leadership.

For the purpose of this story, I will call this young guy “Carlo”. Carlo stood at least six feet tall, far above most of his classmates and certainly much taller than me. He had big shoulders and looked strong, and some might even say ‘scary’. He was loud and somewhat abrasive in the way he first came across. He spoke his mind and boomed with a loud voice. Yet beyond this rough exterior, I could sense a softness. There was something about him that showed he cared deeply about life. While his classmates were sometimes indifferent, apathetic or disengaged, Carlo was 100% present in everything. He was totally engaged in the experience and in life.

For those who have never been on an Outward Bound expedition, it can sometimes be challenging. It requires camping out under any condition, expeditioning through rough terrain, taking responsibility for everything from cooking to setting up camp, and getting along with others. Whether it rains, hails or shines, the expedition keeps going. There is no stopping or pulling out, you just face up to whatever comes up. This really tests one’s mettle.

On this particular journey we faced a couple of snags. I recall the group getting lost for a period of quite a few hours which led to us camping in a location that was not ideal. We also had to battle a big mountain during some rain. When these challenging situations come up, you really see what people are made of. It is amazing who will rise to the challenge and who will struggle. In this particular group, whenever the challenging times hit, it was Carlo who would step in and lead the group, provide motivation, and support those who were particularly struggling. He was showing himself to be someone very different to the ‘bully’ that the teacher described on the first day.

At night once dinner was done, I would often sit by the fire and write in my journal. Carlo shuffled up beside me one night asking what I was doing. I told him of my love for journaling, and that I enjoyed writing poetry or just drawing whatever was in front of me. He asked me if I had a spare journal, which I did and then gave to him. For the following few days and nights, Carlo would sit by himself and write. At first I didn’t know what he was doing until he showed me some poetry he had been writing. I enjoyed reading it with him and talking about what he was learning.

His teacher was in a state of shock and awe about who this guy had become. Here was Carlo totally transformed by the experience. I would love to tell you that his transformation was due to some spectacular event, something I did or a profound realisation for him; it wasn’t. His transformation was elegantly simple and probably happened with little awareness by him.

This is an example of the Pygmalion Effect – a form of self-fulfilling prophecy that takes its name from the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. This play is of the same story as My Fair Lady, which follows the character of Eliza Doolittle who transformed from a cockney flower girl to a high society woman through shifting the expectation that she had of herself.

For Carlo, it wasn’t that he was bad. Back at school he was simply living up to the expectations his teachers had of him, and he of himself. He had built over time an identity around being the school bully. The elegant simplicity of the Outward Bound experience allowed him to see himself in a new light. Negative expectations were removed, and we engaged with each other as if he was a leader who had the ability to contribute with compassion, integrity and strength.

The Pygmalion Effect is well researched and written about in education circles.  How might this play out in the broader field of ‘doing good’? So often both in interpersonal interactions and the ways organisations promote their services, we focus on negative expectations of others. Social services place attention on people’s disabilities ahead of abilities, or what is wrong in their lives.

It is perhaps most pervasive in the field of employment and working with people who have been ‘long-term unemployed’. Invariably, people who fall into this field are seen in terms of skills that they lack, experience they don’t have and possessing a debilitating lack of motivation. Yet these same people are also capable of contribution, care and skill. We place our attention on the negative or deficit and actually fulfill that prophecy (this is referred to as the Golem Effect).

Ethics is about being responsible for our expectations of others and ourselves. This simple act of thinking and language can shape the reality of others and our lives. Like it was for Carlo, transformation does not need to be difficult – it can be elegantly simple. It can be a matter of shifting our attention to what might be, and allowing that to fulfill itself.

The photo at top was taken from the site calwatershedfunds.org

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