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Expectancy and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Robert Rosenthal of Harvard specialized in studying expectancy and self-fulfilling prophecy. He is most famous for a classic experiment (briefly discussed in Chapter 1) about the expectations of teachers (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968). In the experiment, all the students in a class were given a standard IQ test.

After the results were scored, the researchers informed the teachers that five students in the class had unusually high IQ scores and would probably be "spurters" who leaped ahead of their classmates during the remainder of the year. In reality, the five children were picked at random.

By the end of the year, all the children in the class had gained in IQ, but the five "spurters" had gained much more than other students. Evidently the teachers treated them differently after being told to expect sudden improvement.

What was the Pygmalion Effect?

This finding was dubbed the Pygmalion Effect. In a Greek myth, a sculptor named Pygmalion fell in love with a statue of a beautiful woman that he had created. The statue then came to life. Similarly, teachers presented with a "beautiful image" of five students brought that image to life.

Where did Rosenthal's research begin? How did Rosenthal make student researchers into subjects?

Rosenthal (1994) said his line of research started when he almost ruined his doctoral dissertation research by accidentally biasing his research toward an outcome he expected. Instead of covering up the mistake, he was inspired by it and started to do research on experimenter bias.

He began to study the phenomenon of experimenter bias. With K.L. Fode, Rosenthal did an experiment in which the true subjects were student researchers.

The student researchers were instruct­ed to have subjects rate photographs. Half the experimenters were led to expect high ratings, the other half were led to expect low ratings.

Sure enough, the experimenters got the results they expected. "Experimenters expecting high ratings obtained substantially higher ratings than did experimenters expecting low ratings."

Rosenthal and colleagues next tried an experiment with student researchers teaching rats to run through mazes. Half the student experimenters were told their rats had been specially bred for good performance.

The other half were told they rats had been bred for poor performance. Once again, the student experimenters seemed to create the effects they expected. The bright rats (which were actually no different from the dull rats) performed much better at maze-running and other tests of rat intelligence.

How did Rosenthal show experimenter bias in animal experiments?

At this point, Rosenthal and Jacobson realized they had discovered a powerful effect. They wondered if a similar effect might operate in schools. They did their famous study, later summarized in a book titled Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development. (1968).

Rosenthal and colleagues documented the Pygmalion Effect in a variety of educational contexts over two decades. Their third decade of research focused on mechanisms by which the effect occurred. They found four main factors:

1) The emotional climate was affected by expectations. (Teachers acted warmer toward students they expected to do well.)

2) The behaviors of teachers were different. (Teachers gave the "spurters" more difficult material to study.)

3) The opportunities to speak out in class were different. (Teachers gave these students more opportunities to respond in class and more time to answer questions.)

4) The level of detailed feedback about performance was different. (Teachers gave these students more informative feedback.) [Adapted from Rosenthal, 1994]

While all four factors were important, Rosenthal said, the effects of emotional climate and teacher behavior were most important. "Teachers appear to teach more and to teach it more warmly to students from whom they have more favorable expectations."

What were important factors in the Pygmalion Effect?

Rosenthal documented expectancy effects in non-school contexts as well. In business management, expectancies determined what employers got out of their employees. In courtrooms, expect­ations about a defendant's guilt or innocence tilted the outcome.

In nursing homes, expectations about a patient's likelihood of improving or getting worse tended to come true. In all different contexts, expectations tended to come true whether or not they were based on any objective evidence.

What were a few other contexts where expectancy effects were documented?

As a general rule, people make their expectations come true. Rosenthal's research showed expectancy effects are not only important; they are robust. If people do research on expectancy effects, they can expect to find such effects in most cases.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Social Interactions

Our expectations shape the way we interact with people. Snyder, Tanke, and Berscheid (1977) gave students a folder with information about a female student. They were asked to call this student on the telephone and conduct an interview.

The folder included a photograph of a woman, who was portrayed as either beautiful or unattractive. In reality, the photos were paired randomly with the folders, and the women who received the calls did not know whether the person calling them believed they were attractive or unattractive.

The ten-minute telephone interviews were recorded and analyzed. Students who thought they were talking to a beautiful woman were friendlier on the phone, and they were more likely to describe the person they were talking to as more friendly and sociable.

In other words, the interviewers acted differently, depending on what they expected and believed about the person on the phone. They elicited more friendly reactions from the "beautiful" women, yet they attributed this friendliness to the women rather than to their own behavior.

How did attractive or unattractive pictures influence telephone conversations? How does this illustrate self-fulfilling prophecy?

Their expectations created the situation they expected. This type of situation, in which a person's prediction or expecta­tion helps the prediction to come true, is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Confirmation Bias

One factor leading to self-fulfilling prophecies in social situations is seeking evidence that confirms expectations. This is called confirmation bias.

If a person has a stereotyped or preju­diced view of another person, evidence that supports this prejudiced view will be noticed and remembered, while evi­dence that contradicts expectations is discounted or forgotten.

Confirmation bias helps create self-fulfilling prophecies in the workplace. Suppose an employer reluctantly employed an ex-felon, despite expectations that the former criminal would be irresponsible if given a job.

Confirmation bias would lead the employer to noticed and emphasize any irresponsible behavior by such a person. Positive and responsible behaviors might be ignored or discounted.

What is confirmation bias"? How could confirmation bias occur in the workplace?

Higgins and Bargh (1987) reviewed a wide range of studies showing confirmation bias. For example, in a study by Snyder and Swann (1978), college students were asked to interview other students.

First they were provided with information about the other student. Some were told the other student was extroverted (outgoing and sociable) while some were told the other student was introverted (shy or turned inward).

How did student interviewers show confirmation bias?

The results of the interview tended to confirm these expectations, although in reality the descriptions were matched randomly to the students being inter­viewed. The interviewers simply found what they expected to find.

Confirmation bias can follow first impressions. For example, somebody with "lazy" or sloppy speech tends to make a bad first impression in job interviews. Confirmation bias then leads to other things about the person being interpreted as evidence of sloppiness.

Kralijic, Samuel, and Brenena (2008) found that a bad first impression caused by sloppy speech could be reversed if it was overridden quickly by a new explanation of the "evidence." For example, if the interviewer looked up and saw the interviewee had a pen in his or her mouth while shuffling through papers, a bad first impression from sloppy speech was reversed, otherwise not.


Higgins, E. T., & Bargh, J. A. (1987). Social cognition and social perception. Annual Review of Psychology, 38, 369-425.

Kralijic, T., Samuel, A. G., & Brennan, S. E. (2008) First impressions and last resorts. Psychological Science, 19, 332-338. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02090.x

Rosenthal R. & Jacobson L. (1968) Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Rosenthal, R. (1994). Interpersonal expectancy effects: A 30-year perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 176-179.

Snyder, M., Tanke, E. D., & Berscheid, E. (1977) Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 656-666.

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