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Pygmalion or Golem Effect


What were the expectations which you set for yourself, are set for you from the outside and may well have been set for you since you were quite young?

Sometimes these expectations can be quite high, can mean that you are in the mindset of someone who can achieve in one or many arenas of your life: sporty, an academic, really organised, great with people etc. These helpful labels become self-fulfilling prophecies and are called the ‘Pygmalion Effect’. Just like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, just by changing her style, look, voice, those around her placed new expectations on her and, guess what, she lived up to them. A bit old fashioned perhaps but a good example of how this works.

In a 1968 Study by Rosenthal and Jacobsen, rat handlers were told that one half of the rats in their care were very capable of all sorts of rat tasks but the other half were sadly not. The handlers, non verbally of course, leaked out these expectations and the more ‘able rats’, despite no known biological advantage, were more able to complete the rat tasks (I have an image of rats in super hero capes as I write). Why the higher levels of accomplishment? The handlers were expecting them to and so they did. It happens to us all.

Here’s the rub – the same thing can happen in reverse. If you are given a label which is less helpful (struggles academically, unable to hold down a job, shy, rude), you may equally live up to it and live it out. This is known as the Golem effect (like Lord of the Rings Golem and the etymology means something akin to unfinished human being, not that complimentary!). This Golem effect can lead a person to underachieve, to act out that less useful label. A grumpy teen gets grumpier, a loner stays alone, and a rude person…..well it would be rude to change that right!?

If you have siblings or know a family who does, think about which effect was set for which child from when, it can start very early.

Which one was set for you by family, teachers etc? What effect has that had on your life? It’s not necessarily universally true in all areas of your life but perhaps you can spot both sides of the coin in different parts of your own life.

We set our own Pygmalion or Golem effect as well and these have been learnt somewhere along the lines. Does it help to understand where it came from? A lot of time it is enough to acknowledge the current behaviour but at times it is just interesting and healing to understand the origin of a thought and of behaviours. You can then look at it, realise you are no longer at that stage of life and thus it can make it easier to challenge the worth of perpetuating old patters.

How does knowing this knowledge help?

Spot it – see where you are fulfilling a Pygmalion or Golem effect and question it.

Stop it – if you are not happy with that level of expectation, stop it and….

Choose – how can you raise your level of expectation for yourself. You are no longer a child and you can set your own expectations, step out of your history and make your life more fulfilling.

Good luck!