Pygmalion – Great Expectations

In Greek mythology there is a story about a man called Pygmalion.

According to the myth, Pygmalion was a talented sculptor who lived in Cyprus. Once he sculpted what he considered the perfect representation of the female form from a block of ivory. Soon he found himself falling in love with his creation, and treating the sculpture as though it were a real woman, adorning it with fine clothes and jewellery.

Pygmalion’s love for the sculpture was so great that he prayed to the goddess Aphrodite, Olympian goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation, asking that his creation would become a real person. Aphrodite granted his wish, and breathed life into the statue. Pygmalion was overjoyed, and went on to marry his beloved, Galatea.

The myth forms the basis of a theory that is applicable in several settings, for example the classroom and the workplace, the Pygmalion Effect.

The story is also the basis of the famous work written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, “Pygmalion” (My Fair Lady), which illustrates the Pygmalion Effect. Instead of being transformed from stone, Eliza is transformed from her ghastly English that she starts off with.

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle says:

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”

The Pygmalion Effect is very important in the classroom.

A teacher’s expectations about a child almost invariably turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a teacher believes a child to be slow, the child will come to believe that, too, and will learn slowly (this effect has been named ‘The Golem Effect’, after the golem creature in Jewish mythology).

If, on the other hand, a child is lucky enough to find a teacher who believes that he or she is bright and has potential, the lucky child will intuit that expectation and will rise to fulfill it.

The Pygmalion Effect is also relevant to the workplace. For example, if a manager is convinced that an individual who reports to him or her is a star, that individual will reliably outperform any other individuals whose manager believes the opposite, even if the innate talent of the two is similar.

In Pygmalion in ManagementJ. Sterling Livingston writes,

Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most … unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.

While the Pygmalion Effect is certainly true, – it has been confirmed so many times, and in such varied settings, that it’s no longer even debated, – it does not mean that you can just expect whatever you want from someone else. Expectations should be positive and optimistic but realistic.

The Pygmalion Effect works as a circular mechanism: 

  1. Other people’s beliefs about us influence their actions toward us. 
  2. Their actions towards us influence and reinforce our beliefs about ourselves 
  3. Our beliefs about ourselves influence our actions toward others 
  4. Our actions toward others impact other people’s beliefs about us.

And then back to 1. This circular mechanism can be influenced at all four stages.

Therefore we need to realise that as parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, managers and leaders, we can all be Pygmalion in a variety of situations and settings, and that we have the power to unleash a person’s potential.


“Pygmalion saw these women [the Propoitides who had become prostitutes,] waste their lives in wretched shame, and critical of faults which nature had so deeply planted through their female hearts, he lived in preference, for many years unmarried.–But while he was single, with consummate skill, he carved a statue out of snow-white ivory, and gave to it exquisite beauty, which no woman of the world has ever equalled: she was so beautiful, he fell in love with his creation. It appeared in truth a perfect virgin with the grace of life, but in the expression of such modesty all motion was restrained–and so his art concealed his art. Pygmalion gazed, inflamed with love and admiration for the form, in semblance of a woman, he had carved. He lifts up both his hands to feel the work, and wonders if it can be ivory, because it seems to him more truly flesh.–his mind refusing to conceive of it as ivory, he kisses it and feels his kisses are returned. And speaking love, caresses it with loving hands that seem to make an impress, on the parts they touch, so real that he fears he then may bruise her by his eager pressing. Softest tones are used each time he speaks to her. He brings to her such presents as are surely prized by sweet girls; such as smooth round pebbles, shells, and birds, and fragrant flowers of thousand tints, lilies, and painted balls, and amber tears of Heliades, which distill from far off trees.–he drapes her in rich clothing and in gems: rings on her fingers, a rich necklace round her neck, pearl pendants on her graceful ears; and golden ornaments adorn her breast. All these are beautiful–and she appears most lovable, if carefully attired,–or perfect as a statue, unadorned. He lays her on a bed luxurious, spread with coverlets of Tyrian purple dye, and naming her the consort of his couch, lays her reclining head on the most soft and downy pillows, trusting she could feel.
The festal day of Venus, known throughout all Cyprus, now had come, and throngs were there to celebrate. Heifers with spreading horns, all gold-tipped, fell when given the stroke of death upon their snow-white necks; and frankincense was smoking on the altars. There, intent, Pygmalion stood before an altar, when his offering had been made; and although he feared the result, he prayed : ‘If it is true, O Gods, that you can give all things, I pray to have as my wife–’ but, he did not dare to add ‘my ivory statue-maid,’ and said, ‘One like my ivory–.’ Golden Venus [Aphrodite] heard, for she was present at her festival, and she knew clearly what the prayer had meant. She gave a sign that her divinity favored his plea : three times the flame leaped high and brightly in the air. When he returned, he went directly to his image-maid, bent over her, and kissed her many times, while she was on her couch; and as he kissed, she seemed to gather some warmth from his lips. Again he kissed her; and he felt her breast; the ivory seemed to soften at the touch, and its firm texture yielded to his hand, as honey-wax of Mount Hymettus turns to many shapes when handled in the sun, and surely softens from each gentle touch. He is amazed; but stands rejoicing in his doubt; while fearful there is some mistake, again and yet again, gives trial to his hopes by touching with his hand. It must be flesh! The veins pulsate beneath the careful test of his directed finger. Then, indeed, the astonished hero poured out lavish thanks to Venus; pressing with his raptured lips his statue’s lips.
Now real, true to life–the maiden felt the kisses given to her, and blushing, lifted up her timid eyes, so that she saw the light and sky above, as well as her rapt lover while he leaned gazing beside her–and all this at once–the goddess graced the marriage she had willed, and when nine times a crescent moon had changed, increasing to the full, the statue-bride gave birth to her dear daughter Paphos. From which famed event the island takes its name.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses 10. 243 ff (trans. Brookes More) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.)