Seeing the Best in People

Does how we think about other people have an effect on them? Do our views, whether expressed out loud to those individuals or not, have an impact? Is it possible that we have the power to make people kinder or less kind, more or less trustworthy, more or less likely to achieve academic success, simply because of our view of them?

Gandhi is often quoted as saying “be the change you wish to see in the world”. But this is a reductive paraphrasing of his actual words:

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do”.

Contained within these words and the ideas expressed is the possibility that how we approach others, our way of being, might be powerful enough to change the ways of others. Gandhi describes that we human beings perceive the world through the filters we impose ourselves. If we want to see a different reality, we need to work on our filtering, and the world will change. Well, probably not the world as a whole immediately, but definitely the way we perceive the world around us. Often you cannot convince someone via speech alone to constructively alter a behaviour, but you can provide a model for emulation by changing your own behaviour.

In the last T-search session ably led by Mrs Debbie Hill, our GDST Trust Consultant Teacher for Educational Research and School Consultant Teacher, we explored the power of the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom and the labelling theory. Our discussion was initially centred around one of the best known experiments conducted by psychologist, Bob Rosenthal, at Spruce Elementary School in South San Francisco, where he split a group of students into those labelled as having high potential and those with low potential. The students were assigned at random and there was no factual basis for the group they were placed into but the adults teaching the students were unaware of this, believing the assigned label. The experiment showed that where teachers had high expectations of their students – believing that the group had excellent academic potential – the students made far greater progress on average than the group of students who had been artificially labelled as having low academic potential. As this famous study demonstrates, the expectations that teachers have of their students are influential in their future academic performance and the challenge for teachers is to find ways to release and unlock the student’s potential, capacity and self belief.

This became known as the Pygmalion Effect – the idea that belief (or lack of) in someone’s potential has a direct correlation with how well they perform. And it’s not just the expectations of teachers that matter. Where there is the will to believe such as where managers have high expectations of workers there is increased productivity, where there are positive expectations of nurses this can lead to patients recovering faster. So, what can schools do to ensure high teacher expectations?

Research has demonstrated that providing educators with information about the impact of high expectations is a good starting point for improvements to be made. When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways. My message here is that there is something about the belief held by another which changes their interaction with another individual, bringing about the differences noted time and again in research. When students feel that their teacher cares about their success and is willing to help them achieve their goals, they are more likely to put in the effort needed to meet those expectations.

There is, of course, a scary flip side to the Pygmalion Effect called the Golem Effect: low expectations leading to poorer outcomes. Fortunately, the empirical research in this area is much scarcer due to ethical objections. However, it is not entirely lacking and one infamous example was an experiment which saw a number of orphans split into two groups. One group was told they were excellent speakers, while the other group were told they were likely to develop a stutter. Even though there was no foundation for these statements, multiple individuals in the latter group had their speech negatively impacted for life. This is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy – an idea that self-held beliefs can come true in reality. When a low performance is noted, the negative expectations are confirmed and the belief is reinforced.

So, we see the Pygmalion Effect in some children, and the Golem Effect in others. Students we don’t expect enough from miss out on teacher input, leading to lowered school performance. This confirms and perpetuates these low expectations, even with no reliable basis in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle. It may seem obvious, but the best way to overcome the Golem Effect is to use the Pygmalion Effect. Remember: the best way to help people to achieve and perform well is to believe that they can do so. If we believe the very best of people, if we imagine them to be kinder and more trustworthy, maybe they will be.

Both the Golem and Pygmalion effect manifest in educational settings and beyond. It is important to recognise and acknowledge that these may be occurring in your day-to-day life, as it can result in consequences beyond the academic realm. Could our belief in our students actually lead to them performing better, playing sport better or achieving more? I certainly don’t think we have got anything to lose, as a school, by living our mantra ‘we believe in our girls, and they believe in themselves’. By believing that every Northampton High girl has the capacity to learn and improve, and by supplementing this with strategies such as focusing on process and mastery, we can ensure that no child is ever left behind.


  1. Hester de Boer, Anneke C. Timmermans & Margaretha P. C. van der Werf (2018) The effects of teacher expectation interventions on teachers’ expectations and student achievement: narrative review and meta-analysis, Educational Research and Evaluation, 24:3-5, 180-200.
  2. Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen (1968) Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  3. Animated video about the Pygmalion Effect. The Pygmalion Effect