Pygmalion and Golem: Poor Expectations get Poor Results

“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.”
–Foluke Ipinyomi(1)

by Sasha Alyson

Year after year, rich countries send their “development experts” into poorer countries, to show everybody 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 turns out. They greatly underestimate the abilities and potential of poor people where they work. A World Bank study found that:

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… 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. Aid programs and U.N. agencies, 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.

* * *

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.

Pygmalion by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786, Musée National du Château et des Trianons

After 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.

Notes and Sources

1. From “Decolonising the Colonised African Mind,” a blog posted by Foluke Ipinyomi

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

Top photo: U.S. Navy Seabees build a school in Djibouti, photo by Nathan Laird. This school-building might seem like a generous act of international friendship, but look closely. First, the school is going up near Camp Lemonnier, the biggest American military base in Africa, where the U.S. is eager to maintain good community relations. The work is being done by Americans, in a country that has nearly 50% unemployment; hiring local workers would have been a thoughtful gesture. For reasons explained in Schools are getting worse, the new school is unlikely to improve education.

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in literacy work in Southeast Asia since 2006. He writes regularly about how development projects frequently undermine the countries they claim to help.

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