Over the summer I was fortunate enough to listen to a set of self-help tapes by motivational speaker Lou Tice. While there were many other interesting and useful ideas in the series, one idea profoundly changed the way in which I view the world.
The Pygmalion theory, the idea that people tend to live up to others’ expectations, is useful in understanding a wide range of human interactions. When interacting with people, it is rational to examine a subject (the person being interacted with) and build a set of expectations for that person. The better one knows the subject, the more specific and accurate expectations will tend to be. With a set of expectations in mind, you behave toward the subject in certain ways. The subject reads these signals and tries to live up to expectations.
Sometimes a person will exceed expectations; sometimes he or she will come up short. The expectations are modified constantly to account for successes and failures. It is rational for each of us to actively attempt to determine others’ personalities and abilities so as to discover who are the best people we can surround ourselves with. The better the people, the more we will be able to achieve with our lives.
The implications of these ideas are very important. The Pygmalion theory helps explain the importance of communication skills, first impressions, parenting practices, the persistence of class inertia and stereotypes and the success and failure of many institutions and relationships.
If people live up to what others expect, they tend to perpetuate old thoughts about how people are supposed to be, unless a conscious effort is made to put old expectations aside. People who expect failure will set low standards and then be dissatisfied with the poor results that follow. The two most obvious examples of expectations mirroring results in the public policy arena are American schools and the American welfare system.
The poor state of primary and secondary education in the United States is a reflection of the philosophy that governs how curriculum is set. If our grade, middle and high schools set curriculums aimed at making sure all kids pass (social promotion) and no one feels bad about his lower abilities, then odds are pretty good that the standards are so low that moderately gifted and exceptional students will pay a high price, being slowed down to accommodate their less fortunate peers. (This system also cheats struggling students, who in many cases graduate without skills necessary to compete in the global economy.)
Our elementary and high schools must be reformed to expect the best from our students. Those who do not learn the current material should be given additional instruction and held back from more advanced studies until they are ready, or put in a “tracked” system from an early age, in which students are grouped according to their academic abilities so as to ensure that all students are challenged regardless of their aptitudes.
Perhaps the best public-policy success in our lifetimes was the reform of the welfare system. The old welfare programs, which expected nothing in exchange for a set of handouts, produced nothing but a group of people expecting their handouts. The new welfare system expects work or active job training in exchange for benefits, and people are learning that working is better than collecting. Welfare recipients past and present aren’t dumb; they just follow the path of least resistance. The old path of least resistance was to sit on the sideline and collect. The new path of least resistance is to get out and work hard. We as a country set a higher standard and got better results.
Setting high standards for people in all areas of our lives produces better results than setting low standards. If we make conscious efforts to expect more of people, we will usually get positive results. We should always try to structure our lives and public policy to reflect the faith in people that the Pygmalion theory represents.