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The Pygmalion Effect on Couples

Becoming all of who we can be.

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Linda: The myth of Pygmalion is told in Ovid's Metaphorphoses. Pygmalion was a gifted young sculptor in Cyprus who fell in love with a statue he had carved. Pygmalion had strong misgivings about women due to the numerous vices he thought they were capable of perpetrating. He was determined never to marry, believing that his commitment to his art was enough to sustain his passions. One day, he began to sculpt a statue of ivory that he was determined to form in the image of his idea of the perfect woman.

The statue grew more impressive each day with the application of his skill. When he finally perfected his beautiful vision, Pygmalion realized that he had fallen in love with it. He began to treat the statue as if it were alive. He would kiss it, embrace it, offer gifts to it, dress it, and even lay it down on a couch. All the while, he imagined she responded with the affections of a real woman.

Cyprus was the island where Venus first rose from the sea foam. The holiest festival day of Venus came when worshippers would sacrifice livestock to the goddess. After Pygmalion made his offering, he prayed to the gods that they might make the "living likeness" of his ivory statue his bride.

Pygmalion returned to his house to be with the one he loved.

He began to kiss and caress her ardently. Pygmalion’s desire was so intense, his prayer so pure, his expectation so clear, and his belief so strong, that Venus knew what he desired, and she acknowledged his prayer.

The statue seemed to become soft and warm to his touch.

When he felt a pulse from the body, he held it in his arms. She responded as a real woman to his embrace. Pygmalion thanked the goddess, and the goddess in turn blessed the occasion of their union. Their passionate love eventually produced a daughter.

Research on the Pygmalion effect

Robert Rosenthal is well known for his study of the Pygmalion effect. A professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, his interests include self-fulfilling prophecies in which he focuses on the effect of teachers' expectations on students. In 1968, with Lenore Jacobson, he reported the Pygmalion effect in the classroom. In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, the children did indeed show significantly increased academic success.

The purpose of the experiment was to support the hypothesis that reality can be influenced by the expectations of others. This influence can be beneficial as well as detrimental depending on which label an individual is assigned. The observer/expectancy effect, which involves an experimenter's unconsciously biased expectations, is tested in real-life situations. Rosenthal posited that biased expectancies could essentially affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies as a result.

All students in a single California elementary school were given a disguised IQ test at the beginning of the study. These scores were not disclosed to teachers. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20 percent of the school chosen at random) could be expected to be "spurters" that year, doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates. The spurters' names were made known to the teachers. At the end of the study, all students were again tested with the same IQ test used at the beginning of the study. All six grades in both experimental and control groups showed a mean gain in IQ test scores from pre-test to post-test.

The Pygmalion effect and relationships

This now famous study clearly shows that what we observe in others, whether they are children or adults, has a great deal to do with our expectations. It is also true of partners who have an intense desire, a clear expectation, and a strong belief that their partner will open and warm to their embrace. If we have positive expectations of our partner, and we hold fast to them, supporting our partner to evolve into who they can become with patience, profound conviction, and support, and they also do that for us as well, we have the fine makings for a great relationship. Since the Pygmalion effect is such a strong influence on how positively we see our partner, why not avail ourselves of its benefit?