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Pygmalion (Rosenthal) and Golem effect

Applying to medical school will undoubtedly be one of the most stressful times of your life. The pressure that you feel internally from yourself and externally from friends, family and teachers to get and achieve your offers can sometimes feel overwhelming.

It is important to take time to look out for yourself during this period. After all, you are so much more than your achievements.

The Aspiring Medics, using our own personal experiences, are here to help you navigate through the application period.


Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect, also known as the Rosenthal effect, is the psychological phenomenon whereby a leader’s high expectations of their follower positively impacts their followers performance. The name of the phenomenon stems from greek mythology. Pygmalion was a Greek sculptor who carved a woman and fell so in love with his creation that she came to life.

The effect was first demonstrated by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in 1968 in a US elementary

school. The students took intelligence tests and randomly, independent of their scores, 20% of students were labelled as “unusual potential for intellectual growth”. The teachers were informed of the names of these students. When testing the students eight months later, they found that these randomly selected students scored significantly higher than their peers.

The effect suggests that our reality is negotiable and can be manipulated by others. How we act, think and what we achieve can be influenced by the expectations of others around us. It is a reminder of the potential influence of our expectations.

Golem effect

The Golem effect is the opposite of the pygmalion effect. It is the psychological phenomenon whereby lower expectations of someone can lead to them performing worse. The Golem effect gets its name from Jewish mythology, where Golem was an unfinished clay monster that grew so violent that it had to be destroyed. Likewise, in real life, the Golem effect is dangerous and must be overcome.

Again, a school environment was used to first demonstrate this effect. In the 1980’s a sample of teachers were examined and classified into the biased and unbiased groups depending on whether the scoring of students' work affected how the student was treated. Unbiased teachers treated all students the same, regardless of how much potential they perceived the student to have. However, biased teachers treated the students that they perceived to have lower potential more negatively. For example, as well as giving the students easier tasks, they were more critical and less friendly to these students. These students performed 23% worse in tasks when compared to their peers who had unbiased teachers.

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. The placebo effect is another example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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. For example, a teacher's low expectations of their student can affect their students self-esteem. If someone we respect or want to impress, such as a teacher or employer, believes we will fail, they can influence our own impression of ourselves.


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