The expectations we have of our children significantly influence their performance too...

Ovid, the Roman poet, in his Metamorphosis first recounted the legend of the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion who had little use for women in his life, until he fell in love with an ivory sculpture of the perfect woman that he'd made. He called her Galatea and prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to give her life. His prayers were granted and he then married Galatea and led a happy life. Based on this myth, social scientist Robert Rosenthal described, in 1968, what he referred to as the Pygmalion effect, sometimes also referred to as the observer-expectancy effect.

The basic postulate here is that the expectation a teacher has of a student significantly affects the latter's performance. In a well-known experiment carried out by Rosenthal and his colleagues, teachers were primed by being told that certain students were “bright” and that certain others were “dim”, even though in reality, there was no basis for this categorisation. The hypothesis was that this would unconsciously condition the teachers to approach the bright and the dim students differently. This was exactly what happened, as a result of which they had higher expectations of the “bright” students who ended up performing better than the “dim” ones of whom they had much lower expectations and consequently did not really push to perform. This forms the basis for two contemporary phenomena: parents and teachers who drive their ‘smart' children to perform like champions, and what in today's corporate world is referred to as mentoring.

It is not uncommon to see parents, and sometimes teachers too, driving their children to perform at levels of excellence far above those of their contemporaries. This happens, more often than not, when the child displays a particular type of talent or ‘intelligence', say academic skills, musical abilities, athletic prowess or whatever. Such parents are convinced that the child has the wherewithal to be a high achiever, and not only push the child to do better all the time, but devote a fair portion of their time and energy to providing opportunities and indentifying resources that can benefit the child's progress. The fact that their child does better than others spurs them on even further in this endeavour. The concept of mentoring too operates along similar lines: identify potential ‘stars' and attach them to a senior professional who will not only provide them with knowledge and understanding, but also motivation and pressure to grow by having high expectations of them.

Problematic assumptions

However, when you take a step back and look at the whole issue with some objectivity, there are a couple of readily visible catches. The first of these has to do with identifying potential. The very basis of the Pygmalion myth is that Galatea is a veritably perfect creation. Therefore, the raw material will have to be of very high quality to begin with. Could Pygmalion have created a Galatea out of clay or stone or even marble? He needed ivory as the starting point. Of course, the potential of ivory over stone or marble in sculpture may be readily evident, but in contemporary life, although performance is measurable, potential is not, for, it is a prediction of future performance based on estimates of current capabilities. History is full of anecdotes of people who were passed over as being ‘low in potential' turning out to be world-beaters, not because they were actually low in potential, but because they were inaccurately assessed to be so. There is, equally, enough evidence that people who were adjudged to be high in potential, have burnt out very rapidly. Put differently, this approach of dredging out potential winners can result in as many hits as misses and oftentimes it does seem that the effort put in by the Pygamalions of the modern world may not really produce the anticipated Galateas.

Possibilities of misuse

The next difficulty is the match or the compatibility between the mentor and the protégé. In today's world, a potential protégé can hire a mentor from among an array of professional mentors or coaches, whether the protégé is made of ivory, clay or stone. Or the parent may choose a mentor for the child whether or not the child has the requisite raw material and may end up pushing the mentor as well as the child to extract quality outcomes. The best mentoring happens serendipitously, as when a senior professional takes a shine to a rookie and pretty much adopts the latter who is often happy to be mentored. And then there is always the risk of finding a Svengali for a mentor. In his 1894 novel Trilby, George du Maurier created a fictional character called Svengali, an evil hypnotist who uses his powers to control the minds of hapless people. Unfortunately, many young protégés have been ‘Svengalied' and have become victims of their fiendish mentors' malafide machinations.

However, if one approaches the issue with some balance, and has high, though not astronomical expectations of oneself or one's child, remembers that the Pygmalion effect cannot convert a ‘dim' child into a ‘bright' one, has a reasonable assessment of one's capabilities, chooses one's mentor with care, defines adequate mentor-protégé boundaries and knows when to quit if things don't quite work out, Galateas, not Svengalis, will inherit the earth, and who knows, eventually become Pygmalions themselves.

The writer is the author of Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at:

Keywords: Pygmalionmentoring