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How did a handful of administrators [in the colonial era] manage to shackle the African giant? By imprisoning the most important part of a people — their sense of self-worth. By making us believe that we were inferior, that our laws, customs, ideas were of no value.... We see vestiges of this in everyday discussions and actions: Parents failing to teach their children African languages, people using 'that’s what they do in London' as a trump card in arguments, skin bleaching, naming of children, the repugnancy principle, acceptance of non-African standards of beauty....
–Foluke Ipinyomi (1)

Pygmalion and Golem

In 2015 the World Bank issued a thoughtful report about the psychology of decision-making and how it affects development policy. For example, the authors asked, "Can changing the timing of fertilizer purchases to coincide with harvest earnings increase the rate of use?"

They also looked on the opposite side of the fence: The people setting development policy. Year after year, decade after decade, rich countries send their "development experts" into poorer countries, to show them how to do things right. The poor countries never seem to learn enough to do it themselves. What hidden biases do the development experts bring to their jobs?

Some big ones, as it turned out. They greatly underestimate the abilities and potential of poor people where they work. The study found that:

"Development professionals may assume that poor individuals may be less autonomous, less responsible, less hopeful, and less knowledgeable than they in fact are." –World Bank

Although 42 percent of [World] Bank staff predicted that most poor people in Nairobi, Kenya, would agree with the statement that "vaccines are risky because they can cause sterilization," only 11 percent of the poor people sampled... actually agreed with the statement. Similarly, staff predicted that many more poor residents of Jakarta, Indonesia, and Lima, Peru, would express feelings of helplessness and lack of control over their future than actually did.... This finding suggests that development professionals may assume that poor individuals may be less autonomous, less responsible, less hopeful, and less knowledgeable than they in fact are.(2)

The World Bank staff also did a worse job evaluating data for the areas in which they were deemed experts (such as poverty) than about a neutral subject, such as skin creams. The report concludes that "faced with a demanding calculation, they interpreted new data in a manner consistent with their prior views, about which they felt confident." Being an expert actually hurt their judgment, when it came time to evaluate facts that didn't fit with their prior views.

The World Bank deserves credit for asking the questions, and for reporting what they found, even though it casts them in a unflattering light. The report suggests ways to counter these biases.

Because it makes loans, the World Bank has an incentive to understand whether employees are making well-grounded decisions. INGOs and aid programs, which justify their existence by giving away goods, services, and advice, have no such incentive, and we have never heard of them doing such an assessment.

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Pygmalion was an fictional sculptor created by the Roman poet Ovid. From a piece of ivory, he carved a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with her. The gods, who had more power back then, turned the statue into a real woman, whom he married. What he had imagined, became real.

If teachers were told that randomly-chosen students had great potential, those students blossomed.

In 1965, two researchers ran an experiment at a primary school in California. They randomly picked the names of several students in each classroom, and told the teacher that these students showed "unusual potential for intellectual growth" during the year ahead. Sure enough, those students — though chosen at random — blossomed, just as their teachers imagined they would. This was dubbed the Pygmalion Effect. Further studies have found it at all levels of education, and often in other environments.

The opposite is known as the Golem Effect: If a teacher thinks a student will perform badly, the student becomes likely to fulfill that expectation. Researchers haven't tested this theory as often, because it's unethical to try to make children fail, but the Golem Effect is generally accepted as a natural corollary of the Pygmalion effect. Expectations affect realities, in both directions.

It's easy to understand why. If a teacher expects more of Tania, then he'll give Tania harder assignments, and push her to succeed. If Tania does poorly he may say, "Try again, I know you can do better." But if he thinks Tania is hopeless, he won't challenge her. When she fails anything on the first try, he'll assume she can't do it.

Tania, in turn, will understand his expectations. In most cases she'll accept and internalize them. After all, he's the expert.

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If you don't see what we're driving at, please try again. We know you can do better.

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[Several articles on this site look at how INGOs and businesses alike are eager to portray the poor as "needy," see for example: Unicef needs the needy, Melinda Gates's cellphones, and Toms Shoes]

Notes and Sources

1. From "Decolonising the Colonised African Mind," a blog posted by Foluke Ipinyomi (back)

2. World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior, pages 18-19 (back)