The Pygmalion Effect: who are you living up to?

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 Read more