Social Belief and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Lee Jussim, Rutgers University.
Published by Oxford University Press.

Chapter 3. The Once Raging and Still Smoldering Pygmalion Controversy


This chapter reviews the earliest empirical research demonstrating that false beliefs sometimes create their own realities through self-fulfilling prophecies.  First, it reviews the earliest work on “experimenter effects” – a phenomenon whereby researchers sometimes bias the results of their own research in such a manner as to lead to confirmation of their own hypotheses.  Second, it reviews and critically evaluates one of the influential and controversial studies in all of psychology: Rosenthal & Jacobson’s (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom study, which showed that teachers’ expectations could lead to educational self-fulfilling prophecies.  I conclude that figuring out what justifiable conclusions can be reached on the basis of this study is almost impossible, but that, even taking its results at face value, it found weak, fragile, and fleeting self-fulfilling prophecies, rather than the powerful and pervasive ones it has often been cited as showing.  Third, this chapter reviews the immediate follow-up research to this controversial study.  That work clearly showed that: 1) Self-fulfilling prophecies do indeed occur (even this claim was controversial at one time); 2) They are generally small, fragile, and fleeting (exactly as found – but not often described as such – in the original Pygmalion study); and 3) the most controversial claim emerging from Pygmalion – that teacher expectations can alter student IQ – is, at best, weakly established.

Caveats to Pygmalion.  Although controversies surrounding Rosenthal and Jacobson's (1968) study have been well-known for years, this chapter has documented the frequency with which Pygmalion is still summarized in an uncritical, oversimplified manner that consistently distorts the results.  The Pygmalion study has been used to justify arguments claiming that expectancy effects are powerful and pervasive, intelligence is primarily environmentally determined, relatively simple interventions can improve student achievement.  It has also been used to justify arguments emphasizing the power of beliefs to construct social reality.  Such uses of Pygmalion are not restricted to claims published before 1973, or even before 1993.  For the many researchers who may not be aware that the entire self-fulfilling prophecy effect hinged on the occurrence of bizarre outliers and out of range IQ scores, the sections reviewing Snow's various critiques (Elashoff & Snow, 1971; Snow, 1969, 1995) documenting this state of affairs should constitute some eye-opening news.
Putting controversy in perspective.  Another purpose of this chapter has been to point out that, although debate between the different positions is often heated, the degree of factual disagreement between them is actually quite small.  If one believes the critics, the IQ effect is zero.  If one believes the advocates, it is very small (frequently 0, never consistently much higher than an r of .2).  This chapter has not resolved this remaining degree of disagreement.  It has pointed out, however, something that may have been lost in the heat of the controversy: Although the scientific evidence may be equivocal regarding whether teacher expectation effects on IQ are nonexistent or reliably very small, it is completely unequivocal that such effects, if they occur at all, are not very large by any standard.

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Reference as:
Jussim, L. (2012).  Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling ProphecyNew  York: Oxford University Press.