Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Pygmalion Effect - the importance of positive attitudes towards others

Allan Katz    There is a lot of thought and psychology   behind Ya'akov's – Jacob's display of vulnerability, respect and servitude when he bowed 7 times before Eisav-Esau and called him my master. He bowed 7 times until he reached his brother and he certainly reached him. Eisav's compassion and mercy was aroused and he embraced and kissed Ya'akov and then he together with his brother cried. R' Hirsch explains that tears flow from the innermost feelings, so one can only cry if he is genuinely moved.

כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים--    כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם, לָאָדָם. as in water, face to face, so too, is the heart of one person to another.  When one has positive thoughts and feelings about another person, these feelings will be reflected back to you as the other person will tend to feel positively about you too. A negative response from a person is a generally a reflection of how you feel about them. The feelings have to be genuine, coming from the heart and lightening up the face. These positive thoughts and feelings will lead us to act accordingly, with more empathy, compassion and kindness..

The idea in Proverbs precedes the so-called Pygmalion effect, documented in the 1960's, which showed how positive teachers'   assumptions, expectations and beliefs about student's intellectual potential affected student's performances in a positive way. Parents and teachers who believe that children have also a brighter side to their human nature and can behave in a virtuous and altruistic way can likewise impact on children and set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How we view children, our beliefs and subsequent expectations about them will guide and dictate our interventions and interactions with them. Parents and teachers who have a dark view of human nature and only see the negative side as in the verse -' since the imagery of man's heart is evil from his youth' –   כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו  
 will resort to very controlling environments with rewards, consequences and punishments. The message to kids is that you can't be trusted to learn or behave unless you are given rewards or threatened with punishments. And then we see how kids become so addicted to and dependent on rewards and punishments.  When we write off kids as disruptive, defiant, manipulative or destructive they are likely to 'live down' to these expectations.

 The key to a parent-child or teacher-child relationship is the child learning to trust the parent and teacher, so that kids want 'relationship', sees  them as  guides and someone to come to , especially when they ' screw up' and make mistakes. Rav Pam relates that as a 'Rebbi and teacher' - a kid came late for class and offered some excuse adding that he could bring a note from his parents. Rav Pam responded that he had already explained why he came late, why  would he need a note from his parents.'' In truth, I wasn’t sure if he told me the truth, but I couldn’t let him feel that I don’t trust him.”  Most teachers would be much more focused on their fear that the student will feel he put one over on the teacher.  They probably wouldn’t even consider the harm that distrusting their student would cause. 

We can help students develop good values and middot by attributing to the students the best possible motive consistent with the facts. So when they are generous and pro-social we do not say they were motivated by self-interest. When  they don't meet our expectations it could be that that they are good kids but were unaware of how their actions impact on others and are lacking skills rather than being selfish, defiant aggressive and lacking in compassion. And we would then  in a collaborative way, ' work with' kids to   teach important life lessons and solve problems by finding mutually satisfying solutions .In this way the kid contributes to the solution, learns important life skills and a trusting relationship with the parent or teacher is enhanced. 'Treat kids 'as if they need to be controlled' we may well undermine their natural predispositions to develop self-controls and internalize commitments to upholding cultural norms and values' – Marilyn Watson. 'Doing to ' kids with rewards and punishments just teaches them to ask – what's in it for me and feel sorry for themselves. It does not help kids to reflect on what type of person they want to be and how their actions impact on others.

Higher expectations of kids are positive, but we need to ask ' higher expectations for what'? If our expectations for academics are higher test scores, we will teach to test .If we expect more engagement, curiosity, and self-directed learning we will teach accordingly. If our high expectations for kids behaving themselves and being responsible is being compliant and following instructions we will be controlling. But if we understand that kids learn to be responsible by making decisions and acting in a pro-social way, we will allow them to participate in making decisions and solve problems in a collaborative way.

We all have a brighter and a darker side to our human natures, capable of being generous and selfish, helpful or hurting. But the good news is that if we follow the advice in the words of Proverbs- Mishlei and take into account the Pygmalion effect we can help ourselves and those we interact with to become more positive and caring people.


  1. I'm beginning to feel I'm the notorious naysayer to your posts and comments. Big Bad Joe Returns. Believe me, I'd like to agree with you. But! I think students also need a little bit of negative reinforcement. I think studies that show that kids react to trust, belief in their intrinsic abilities, etc. may have involved students that had a modicum of punishment in their lives. Some of the generation that is completely brought up this way, starting in the cradle, seems to end up as kids that don't even bother to try accomplishing anything. They've figured out that there's no price to pay for lethargy, ignorance, and their drive to tune out the teaching, "Whatever I do, the teacher is going to attribute the 'best possible motive.' Hmm, wonder how far I can take this?" Meanwhile, punishment has become verboten, so the teacher is left powerless. One more lost child. Allan, volunteer as a teacher somewhere. Get your feet wet trying out some of your pet theories in the field. Then report back here.

  2. sorry for the long reply


    To start at the end – I have been in front of a classroom , this post
    resonates with school teachers, principals and yeshivah high school ' ramim'
    that I have shared with here in Israel.
    I have shared the work of Marylin Watson , the author of' learning to trust'

    and best practices from
    progressive schools.

    I like your post because it proves my point, that your negative view of
    kids blinds your ability to see the possibility of a different type of
    schooling, discipline and learning. It reminds me of a teacher who exercises tight control of his classroom and then sees them going crazy during recess , remarks – you see what these kids are like , give them an inch and they will take a mile- it does
    not take much to understand that they may be trying to reclaim some of the
    autonomy that has been denied to them. But the message he takes – tighter controls.
    When it comes to academics – now I talk a lot with kids , also the best kids –
    and why do they go to school – just to get good grades , is there anything of
    value or that they enjoy in learning – NOTHING . So if the school system is
    driven by extrinsic motivators – grades +discipline and there is no inherent
    value in the learning how do you expect kids to behave. If they are addicted to reinforcements whether positive or negative , weaning them off it will be a difficult process. So for sure if we want to make changes , it is not overnight
    but a process. So if we take away punishment or rewards , grades etc and don't create structures that support authentic student learning and community we
    will have chaos. It is not the kids ,
    but the system and they have learned how to play the system. As I mentioned trust and belief in their
    abilities and as people must be supported by teaching that promotes the 4 Cs of
    intrinsic motivation - Choice
    (autonomy), Competence, Community ( cooperative learning), Content ( a relevant and engaging curriculum ) . Schools and kids just focus on how well they are learning and never focus on what they are learning , so there is never a connection between the child and the learning. So in the present system , how do you expect kids to behave and the poor teachers left powerless over kids who don't want to be in the classroom.
    You surprise me – kids brought up the way I describe – without punishment
    - end up ………

    Have you ever thought of helping a kid do teshuvah, reflect of what they
    have done, give them the skills and help them come up with a plan to do better. .Do you help them reflect on what type of people they want to be , do their actions express these values. Punishment just makes kids feel sorry for
    themselves and ask what's in it for me. Is your school a caring community of learners collaborating and cooperating? Are kids helped to reflect on how their actions impact on others on just on themselves. You don't quite appreciate how to deal with problems without punishment.
    You also don't quite understand what I mean by attributing to a kid the
    best motives consistent with the facts - not to let him off the hook as you say , but enable the teacher to get to the root of the problem with the kid
    and solve the problem. Are kids engaged and excited about their learning ,
    sharing their learning with others or do they learn only for the test. Joe, I
    feel sorry for teachers who have to teach kids who are alienated from the
    learning and don't want to be in the class. But at least teachers should be
    able to see kids through their eyes and have a vision how learning could be and take inspiration from the schools where this is happening.


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