According to these reports, when managers have high hopes for their employees, the workers become more productive. When military instructors believe trainees have superior skills, the trainees perform better. Furthermore, when college men converse by telephone with women they’ve been told are attractive, they believe the women behave in more attractive ways.
Just last year, OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder wrote a blog entry brazenly titled “We Experiment On Human Beings!” describing what appeared to be a new, digital Pygmalion Effect. Rudder disclosed that site managers testing the online dating site’s algorithm had told poorly matched couples that they were, in fact, good matches. As a result, Rudder wrote, the couples behaved accordingly and engaged in more extended email conversations.
Low expectations may be just as influential. Scientists have chronicled the impact of negative expectations in settings where they occur naturally, such as classrooms that “track” students from early youth and in society’s treatment of stigmatized groups such as racial minorities, the poor, the elderly, the homeless, convicts and children with learning disabilities.
In a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers described a poignant example of this dynamic after they followed nearly 5,000 low-income families who moved out of public housing and into better neighborhoods. They found that while the daughters in those families benefited from the move, the sons still tended to fail both socially and psychologically, concluding there were “increased rates of depression, PTSD and conduct disorder among boys and reduced rates of depression and conduct disorder among girls.”
The study’s lead author, Harvard Medical School Professor Ronald Kessler, suggested in a published interview that, among other possible factors, biases about low-income boys might be to blame. “Boys may appear to be ‘tough guys’ and people then say they are ‘problem kids,’ ” he said. “So the communities are responding to the boys in a different way than they do to girls.”
Social reformers cite the Pygmalion Effect as key to reversing this sort of prejudice and encouraging child achievement. Yet there’s one major problem with such high hopes. To date, neither Rosenthal nor his many followers have been able to match the striking results from the Spruce School, or with his “maze-bright” and “maze-dull” rats, without first telling lies. This leads to a vexing question: Could the Pygmalion Effect be truly powerful only when expectations are subconscious?
Rosenthal and other researchers have spent decades trying to solve this puzzle, in hopes of finally bottling the Pygmalion magic to provide real-world benefits. Toward this end, in the 1980s, Rosenthal started studying covert communication: the nonverbal language of vocal tone, facial expressions, posture and gestures that make up the bulk of human expression.
Eventually he proposed four key factors that could help explain how teachers’ expectations influence students. They boil down to climate (warm and friendly behavior), input (the tendency for teachers to devote more energy to their special students), output (the way teachers call on those students more often for answers) and feedback (giving generally more helpful responses to the students for whom teachers have the highest hopes).
So how might teachers or other leaders communicate these high expectations? What are their facial expressions, vocal tones and gestures like in these interactions? Alas, Rosenthal’s research hasn’t answered these questions, and there isn’t much guidance from other nonverbal communication authorities. Paul Ekman, a leading expert in the field who has never collaborated with Rosenthal, says that as a general rule, people communicate these high hopes via the degree to which they physically show their attentiveness. A fixed gaze and raised eyebrows conveys a different message than a wandering gaze and bored expression. In other words, it’s all a matter of emotional investment and focus.
These behaviors are usually instinctive, however. So the question remains: Can they be effectively taught? In the twilight of his career, Rosenthal sees signs that they can. He’s particularly excited by the work of educational researcher Christine Rubie-Davies and her Teacher Expectation Project in Auckland, New Zealand. Between 2011 and 2013, Rubie-Davies ran workshops for nearly 200 teachers. She provided classroom instruction in the power of high expectations and the methods of high-expectations teachers, while also videotaping instructors while they interacted with students to show them their demeanor while they taught.
She says the videos have offered potent reality checks, adding: “I’ve watched teacher after teacher saying things like, ‘Oh my God, just look at me! I had no idea I was raising my eyebrow or shaking my head like that!’ ”
Early this year, Rubie-Davies published a study based on an experiment in which she randomly assigned 84 teachers to either the workshops or regular professional development. She found that students taught by the high-expectations group made significant gains in math compared with the control group. On average, they ended the instruction year three months ahead of their peers.
Rubie-Davies isn’t the first researcher seeking ways to train teachers to be better Pygmalions. Since the early 1990s, Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and his team have studied several thousand teachers, looking closely at their moment-to-moment interactions with students. In a 2011 controlled study published in Science, Pianta reported that his own training program had also boosted student performance, achieving the equivalent of moving the average student from the 50th to the 59th percentile in standardized test scores.
Like Rubie-Davies, Pianta videotapes his teachers to help make them aware of the little winces, shrugs and frowns through which they subconsciously speak volumes. More generally, Pianta has been encouraging the instructors to communicate higher expectations by turning over some of the control in the classroom to the kids: letting them work in teams on independent projects, for instance, instead of simply lecturing. That’s a risky proposition for many educators, but with a little real-time encouragement and trial and error, teachers usually see that their students are capable of more than they may have imagined.
“I don’t think you have to lie to teachers to get them to that point,” Pianta says. “They just need a deeper understanding of children’s cognitive and emotional development, and how fluid that is, and how closely it may be tied to their relationship with their teacher.”
That’s hopeful news, particularly given that it’s now impossible for anyone to replicate Rosenthal’s Pygmalion experiment. Not only are ethical standards for research much stricter, but most U.S. teachers are at least vaguely familiar with the findings at Spruce Elementary School and wouldn’t be so easily duped.
Nonetheless, Beverly Cantello remains grateful for having been part of Rosenthal’s historic experiment, even if she did so unwittingly. At the dawn of what would be her 36-year teaching career, the experience made her powerfully aware of the value of high expectations and positive reinforcement, regardless of students’ prior performance. In subsequent years, Cantello developed sophisticated lesson plans for her second-graders. She challenged them by introducing them to the artwork of Salvador Dali, Claude Monet and Georgia O’Keeffe, and teaching them geography by having them produce a daily around-the-world weather report.
Like so many other good teachers, Cantello says she has since kept in touch with former students, continuing to encourage them as they’ve moved on to college and careers.
In her eyes, she says, every child she has taught has been a potential bloomer.
[This article originally appeared in print as, "Great Expectations."]