The Pygmalion Effect: Believing is Seeing

Thank to books like Bill Hybels’ Holy Discontent, Michael Hyatt’s Creating Your Personal Life Plan, Andy Stanley’s Visioneering, I’ve been spending more time thinking about my mission and vision in life. What I love about reading these books is that it enables me to take a step back from my hectic life and see things from a 30,000 foot view. This new vantage point literally changes how I live life.

Throughout this year, I’ve gone through several iterations articulating my mission statement in life. The first mission statement was something around the lines of “To give my utmost glory to God by serving, equipping, transforming people and organizations into Christ-centered vessels by maximizing my God-given talent, passion, and potential.” After many iterations the latest version says, “To glorify God through serving, equipping, and transforming people and organizations into Christ-centered, world-changing Mind Molder of our society.”

It is one thing to create a fancy looking mission statement. It is quite another thing to actually live it out. That is why I started making it habit of continually assessing my involvement in the various activities I’m engaged to determine whether or not it truly reflects, supports, and aligns with my mission.

To fulfill my mission, I realized it would require me to excel in my role as a mentor, encourager, promoter, adviser, and consultant. I then began to take an honest look at myself.

“Am I exhibiting these behaviors? “Do those people who interacted with me have been left with greater dreams, greater thoughts, and greater desire to make a difference in the world?”

I recalled the phenomenon Pygmalion Effect which I vaguely remember from one of my classes in college. This idea derives from ancient Greek myth in which Pygmalion sculpted an image of a beautiful woman whom he named Galatea. The image was striking, so striking in fact that Pygmalion fell in love with it, and he began to imagine wonderful attributes for this image. His love for Galatea became so great that the gods heard, and Galatea was transformed into a real woman with all the wonderful attributes that Pygmalion imagined her to have.

You also may be familiar with the experiment of the Pygmalion Effect.

In the 1960s, Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal teamed up with South San Francisco elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson to conduct what later became known as the Pygmalion Effect study.  In the study, 20% of the students within each of 18 elementary school classrooms were randomly assigned to a ‘high achiever’ group, with the remaining 80% serving as the control group. The teachers in those classrooms were told that these particular students in the ‘high achiever’ group had a superior IQ; even though the students were in fact chosen at random.  By the end of the year, the students who were randomly assigned to the ‘high achiever’ group showed significantly more intellectual growth in the form of increased IQ points than the control group.  In summarizing the book that Rosenthal and Jacobson co-authored about their study, James Rhem, executive editor for the online National Teaching and Learning Forum, said simply:

“When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways.”  

Later studies revealed that when teachers have higher expectations of students, they unconsciously give more positive attention, feedback, and learning opportunities to those students. This phenomenon of self-fulfilling expectations has come to be known as the Pygmalion Effect. (source: the awesome culture blog)

Our Lord Jesus also understood and leveraged the Pygmalion Effect:

The world saw fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots. Jesus saw apostles.

The world saw a fallen woman of a mongrel race. Jesus saw an evangelist to her people.

The world saw a man possessed of a Legion of demons. Jesus saw a son of God.

The world saw little, pesky children. Jesus said, “Let them come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

The world saw a woman who was a sinner wasting expensive ointment on an itinerant teacher’s feet. Jesus saw a broken and contrite spirit.

The world saw a dying thief on a cross. Jesus saw a man who would be with him in paradise.

This made me ponder, how do I see people and organizations?

Do I first see them  full of problems or do I see them as full of opportunity? Do I see them as  ‘what can be’ or “What they are?” Do I use words to encourage them with high expectations or do I belittle them by focusing on their weaknesses and problems? What about as a son, friend, boyfriend, cell group leader, or employee?

William Carey reminds us that as a Christian I am a “wretched, poor worthless worm.” Without  Christ, I am essentially nothing. But with Christ, I can do all things through Him. Today was a good reminder to replace my selfish lens to Jesus’ lens and see life only through His perspective.

How are you leveraging the Pygmalion effect in your life?