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Pygmalion effect / Golem effect

“The expectations I have of someone can influence their performance.”


The Pygmalion and Golem effects are a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. They refer to a process by which a person in a position of authority develops expectations of those they supervise, and the way those expectations consequently impact the actions and behaviours of those being supervised. These expectations of the person in authority (whether positive, for the Pygmalion effect, or negative, for the Golem effect) lead to a differentiated treatment of the supervised person. The latter will then adapt (most often unconsciously) their behaviour to conform to the expectations of the person in the position of authority. This adaptation of the supervised person as a result of the differential treatment by the figure of authority is therefore a realization of these expectations, and it is in this sense that the Pygmalion/Golem effects are a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. This bias has mainly been studied in an educational context [2], but can also occur in other contexts, particularly in personnel management in a business context [3].


A student is taking a creative writing class with a professor. Through interactions with the student, the professor develops negative expectations regarding the student's results. She is certain that the student will not pass the course. Gradually, the teacher's expectations become manifest in her interactions with the student: a chilly tone when addressing the student, lack of eye contact during discussions, the student’s comments ignored in class, etc. Over time, this teacher's differential treatment affects the student: she thinks she doesn't have the writing skills she thought she had and begins to neglect her class. In the final exam, this student obtains a failing grade: the expectations of the professor, reflected in the treatment she gave the student, resulted in the failure of the student.


Several elements can cause someone in a position of authority (most often educational or professional) to develop expectations of those they supervise, whether justified or not. In an educational context, teachers must evaluate their students according to their performance to adapt the course to their needs. This evaluation is made especially at the beginning of the school year, and often through discussion with other teachers. This process creates favourable or unfavourable expectations of each of their student’s skills. These expectations can also be influenced by certain prejudices held by teachers. If, for example, a student has a foreign-sounding name, which could be associated with a neighborhood with more challenging socio-economic conditions, the teacher may form more negative expectations for that student [4]. For their part, students tend to seek the teacher's approval to confirm their skills and will alter their perception of these skills according to the teacher's expectations. The end result is that they can take these expectations as a proof of their competence (or lack thereof). Professional contexts have certain specific elements to consider (such as the attitude of staff members towards work, and the expectations of the manager), and the formation of expectations is often done as early as the reading of the candidate's CV [5].


If the Pygmalion effect and its consequences are usually desirable (for example, through better grades in exams, or better performance at work), the Golem effect has more harmful consequences. As in the example above, one of the consequences of the Golem effect is a loss of self-esteem and a devaluation of one's ability, in addition to a drop in competence. If a specialist in a field communicates to someone (a student, for example) that their skills are not adequate, their perception of their talents can be greatly affected [1]. Even the Pygmalion effect can have certain negative consequences: it can happen, in an educational context, that a teacher gives better grades to a student than he or she deserves, on the basis of expectations the teacher might have, causing an injustice with respect to other students in the class [4]. The extent of these consequences has been convincingly demonstrated, and a clear difference can be seen in the performance of individuals who are affected by the Pygmalion effect, especially in a professional context [3].

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • Try to maintain an empathetic attitude towards staff members at work, or students in an educational context [1].

  • Become aware that prejudices and stereotypes are also factors that influence expectations [4]. Expectations should not be the only guiding criteria for the management of a class or a company: the expectations formed by the person in a position of authority must retain a certain flexibility.

  • Take some responsibility for the successes and failures of one’s students, or of one’s staff, when in a position of authority. In this way, we partially neutralize the expectations that we might have about their performance [2]

How is this bias measured?

The best-known experiment to measure the Pygmalion effect is the school-based experiment of Rosenthal and Jacobson. A class is separated into two groups: a test group which will receive no information and should have no difference in the teaching usually received, and an experimental group in which the teachers will receive made-up information regarding the superior academic capabilities of their students. After a period of time (half an academic year for example), the progress made by the students in each of the groups is compiled. We can then observe that the students who were in the experimental group will have a more marked progression in learning than in the test group, which would demonstrate the existence and effectiveness of the Pygmalion effect [2]. Although this model of experiment has been fundamental in establishing the Pygmalion effect, other more recent methods are also favoured, in particular a method involving self-evaluation of students, which makes it possible to avoid potential biases and errors that the "normal" evaluation can generate.

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:


This bias has social or individual repercussions:


This bias is empirically demonstrated:



[1] McLeod, Susan H. (1995). Pygmalion or Golem? Teacher affect and efficacy. College Composition and Communication, 46 (3): 369-386.

[2] Rosenthal, Robert & Lenore Jacobson (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3 (1): 16-20.

[3] Kierein, Nicole M. & Michael A. Gold (2000). Pygmalion in work organizations: a meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 21 (8): 913-928.

[4] Andersen, Ida Gran. (2018). Pygmalion in instruction? Tracking, teacher reward structures, and educational inequality. Social Psychology of Education, 21 (5): 1021-1044.

[5] Veestraeten, Marlies, Stephanie Johnson K., Hannes Leroy, Thomas Sy, & Luc Sels (2021). Exploring the bounds of Pygmalion effects: Congruence of implicit followership theories drives and binds leader performance expectations and follower work engagement. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 28 (2): 137-153.


Interpersonal level, Representativeness heuristic

Related biases


Fabrice Valcourt, master’s student in philosophy, Université du Québec à Montréal. 

Translated from French to English by Susan D. Renaud.

How to cite this entry

Valcourt, F. (2022). Pygmalion/Golem effect. In G. Béghin, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 5. Online:

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