The Science Behind “Self-Fulfilling Prophesies” 1

By Chris Simmons

It goes without saying that how one person treats another determines how that individual performs. What is not so well understood, especially by bosses and parents, is the legitimate science behind this occurrence.

An individual’s performance goes up or down, in large part, based upon the expectations levied against him/her. When high expectations are placed on a person, he/she will perform better. This phenomenon is called the Pygalion or Rosenthal Effect.

At the other extreme is the Golem Effect, which occurs when decreased performance results from low expectations.

The Rosenthal Effect takes its name from a study on student performance, while the Pygalion reference is taken from an ancient Greek legend. In the Rosenthal-Jacobson research, elementary school students were given a disguised IQ test. Twenty percent of the schoolchild were then randomly chosen — and for experiment purposes — identified as “peak performers.” The names of these purportedly high-potential students were then shared with the teachers. During the course of their study, all the schoolchildren advanced academically. However, the falsely labeled “peak performers” universally exceeded all expectations and past achievements.

Part of this phenomenon derives from how we make decisions. The 1st Rule of Human Nature, Self-Interest Trumps Best Interest,” captures the core principle that all decisions are based on emotion, not logic or reason. Furthermore, since Self-Interest is strongly tied to  Identity and Self-Image, the positive reinforcement that comes from high expectations triggers internal motivators that drive one towards the identified goal. Additional research has discovered that these affirmations and positive social interactions prompt a favorable chemical response in the body. This “endorphin rush” makes you feel better (and happier), which legitimately amps up one’s performance and emotions.

Ultimately, the increased performance by the employee/child also alters the behavior of the boss/parent. The leader will invest more time, attention and effort in their protégé, further incentivizing and sustaining the increased performance.

Taken in their totality, these actions create a self-sustaining feedback loop of positive emotions and in short order, this repetition creates a highly rewarding self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, the inverse is equally true. As Calvin Lloyd noted, “Nobody rises to low expectations,” succinctly highlighting the crippling impact of negative feedback and the Golem Effect.

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