Practitioner Belief and the Pygmalion Effect

Practitioner Belief and the Pygmalion Effect

In a study conducted in several different substance use support services, clients who were identified to staff as having a high potential for change (but who had actually been chosen at random) were significantly more likely to have made and maintained changes a year later. It would appear that what practitioners believe about their clients may be as important as what the clients believe about themselves. 

The consequences of such positive affirmation and appreciation have been validated in a number of experiments in psychology, teaching, sports coaching, organisational development and many other fields. It is oftenrefered to as the Pygmalion effect or Rosenthal effect. It is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance and is named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved, or alternately, after the Rosenthal–Jacobson study where teachers were told that half of the class were very bright and the other half were not. This bore no relationship to their ability as the children had been randomly allocated to the groupings. The teachers behaved as if it were a truth, with the result that the same behaviour from a bright child was praised and enthusiastically received while it was ignored or punished for the less bright child. The so-called bright children got brighter and the less bright children deteriorated. Over the past few decades a substantial body of empirical evidence has emerged to attest the theoretical and practical importance of the Pygmalion effect.

The greatest value of the Pygmalion research is that it provides unequivocal empirical evidence for the close relationship between positive image and positive action, and of the transactional basis of the human self. ‘To understand the self as a symbolic social creation is to recognize that human beings are essentially modifiable, are open to new development, and are products of the human imagination and mind. We are each made and imagined in the eyes of one another’
(Cooperrider and Whitney, 1999).

Cooperrider, D. L. and Whitney, D. (1999) Appreciative Inquiry. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.




About Hugh Asher


Hugh is an author, practitioner, trainer, researcher and consultant.

He keeps rare breed sheep and cows.

He also shares his house with the world’s largest puppy, called Charlie.

Although he was told from a young age that “Life isn’t fair” he has refused
to give up on his goal to make other people’s lives as happy as he can.

His vision for a better world involves giving people the skills and
confidence to make a positive change to other people’s lives.

To learn more about Hugh and the mission of Soma, click here.​


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