The Pygmalion Effect: Believing in them can help them succeed

It’s not just myth. Expecting them to succeed can increase the chances they will. It’s called the Pygmalion effect and it’s real. Here’s how it played out for me. ***

“Wish me luck! I’m headed out to play nine,” I call to Penny, the assistant golf pro, as I turn toward the door. The day before she had me out on the range where I hit a few balls. It’s been twenty-plus years since I played the game for keeps, and the equipment has changed a lot since then. It has had an upgrade, me not so much.

“What do you mean?” Penny asked, clearly confused by my lack of confidence.

“I have no idea where the ball’s going,” I confessed. Penny had changed my stance and hand position at address, and now everything about the swing felt completely new. To me that spelled lack of control, fear of outcome, and performance failure for sure. That old swing was honed over 15+ years and about a million range balls. What did I know about this new one?

IMG_0377“Your swing’s great,” Penny said. “Now you’re addressing the ball in the position you want to be at impact.” It made sense, but still… “Trust your swing,” she said.

That sent me out the door. And, call me shocked, but it was pretty trustworthy. Somehow, her belief in my ability translated into my good performance. Can that really happen?

In fact, it can. Referred to as the Pygmalion Effect in sport psychology circles, our “belief” in another can have a significant and measurable impact on their performance and behavior — for better or for worse. If we think something will work, more often it does. If we think something will fail, more often it does.

Is this magic? wishful thinking? calling on supernatural powers? tapping something sight-unseen? I can’t say for sure, but science says it works! We see this again and again.

The name, Pygmalion Effect, comes from the mythological Pygmalion, a Greek sculptor, who fell in love with the ivory statue he carved. His kiss brought her to life. His belief made her real.

While this is the stuff of myth and legend, science suggests there may be some truth here. Interactions can influence outcomes. A fully connected listener becomes a “therapeutic presence” in a care setting. This is the basis of “talk therapy.”

The same seems to hold true in other relational and influential settings. If I am convinced that something is going to work, I’m more likely to find that it does. If I am told this is a smart group, I’m more likely to rate them higher. And, if I’m told this is a bunch of losers, I’m more likely to downgrade them.

It’s not exactly a self-fulfilling prophecy, although it has that ring to it. What we find in the teaching, coaching and rehabilitation setting is that our expectations influence our behavior toward a student, athlete or patient. If I “believe” in them, the climate I create is warmer. I may spend more time answering questions, offer greater and more positive feedback, or provide more material for their training.

If my expectations are higher, I give them a lift. And, if my expectations are lower, I pull them down. The “belief effect,” while not easily measurable, appears to have significant influence. A team full of “winners” becomes a winning team and a team full of “losers” becomes a losing team, based on way more than their ability or track record. Attitude toward how we coach has a lot more to do with outcome than we may realize.

I know. This flies in the face of our technology driven, statistically reported, carefully and objectively evaluated combines and team tryouts. We want concrete ways to identify and select the next great player or at least a standardized means to rank and measure, but this may not be as easy as we think. Our humanness gets in the way. We like this kid. We are pulling for this guy. We have seen what this girl can do. And that makes the interaction different.


Luck? You don’t need it. Trust your swing, the golf pro tells me. And wouldn’t you know she had me believing in myself when I stepped out onto that first tee. I’m not sure how much of it was her and how much of it was me, but when I laced that first drive down the center of the fairway, did it matter?

IMG_0376Isn’t it our goal to help the people we coach, teach and mentor get the most out of their game? While believing in them doesn’t take the place of their hard work and preparation, it may just tip them into the win column. Once they believe in themselves, the sky is the limit.

Trust your swing.

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