CFI Blog

Pygmalion in Your Bank

“…to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
–Luke 12:48, King James Bible (#aff)

“If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate.”
–George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (#aff)

In Greek mythology, a sculptor named Pygmalion created a beautiful ivory statue. He so admired the ivory statue that he was no longer interested in other women. During a festival for the goddess of love, Aphrodite, Pygmalion made an offering and wished that he could find a woman like his statue. When he returned home, he kissed the statue, and, to his surprise, she was warm and kissed back. The statue turned into a woman, they married, had at least one kid, and lived happily ever after, he making more statues, and she acting as a soap spokesperson.

  1. I made up the last part. She became a reality show star.

George Bernard Shaw wrote a play based on the Greek myth and gave it the same name. In the play, an otherwise unremarkable flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (with a fitting name) “comes to life” when she meets professor Henry Higgins, who teaches her to become a refined and elegant woman and helps her to fit into upper class social situations.

I suspect such a play would not go over well in today’s society. Then again, Americans do seem to have a fascination with Paris Hilton…

However, in order to explain an experiment that was conducted in the 1960s, I had to trace the path of the Pygmalion story. Both Higgins and Pygmalion believed in their statues (metaphorically in the Shaw play) so much that the statues actually came to life.

In a 1965 study, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson went to a California school and conducted IQ tests of all of the students. Then, randomly, they chose 20% of the students to be “growth spurters,” meaning that they were expected to, based on the results of a fictitious test (the lack of existence of which was unknown to the teachers), have significant increases in IQ over the next year. The teachers were told who these “growth spurter” students were as the school year began.

At the end of the year, Rosenthal and Jacobson returned to the school and again measured the IQ of all of the students.

The results, particularly amongst 1st and 2nd graders, was dramatic. On average, the non-spurter population had 1 in 5 students gain 20 or more points in IQ during the course of the school year.

The spurter population? 1 in 2 students gained 20 or more IQ points.

Overall, merely the favorable expectations of the spurter population led to an average increase over the non-spurter population of 6.98 IQ points.

All of this based on a non-existent identification test and telling teachers that some kids were destined for greatness.

As the kids got older – the 3rd through 5th graders – they gained a reputation throughout the school. My mom was a 5th grade teacher, and I remember that she would review her kids before the school year because her teacher friends had already taught those kids. She, for better or worse, had preconceived notions about some of the kids. The authors of the study identified the same preconceived biases that teachers had, which reduced the effectiveness of the “spurter” identification. However, for the younger kids, they’d not been in school long enough to form such a reputation. They were blank slates, so it was easy to convince the teachers that these kids were destined for Einstein status.

Tricks Are for Kids, or Are They?

It might work on kids in school, but do higher expectations placed on adults work as well?

According to several workplace studies, the same effect happens on the job. When managers have high expectations of their workers, then the workers step up their games and do better. When managers subtly express lowered expectations, then the workers don’t do as well.

In sports, it’s called playing to the level of your competition. When the team on the opposing side is good, then you tend to play better. When the team on the opposing side is perceived to be weak, then you don’t bring your A game, and you risk losing (see: opening game, Premier League 2015-2016 season, Arsenal 0 : 2 West Ham. Grr.).

Yet, when I talk to people who are in debt or aren’t saving enough for retirement, or when I read headlines of commonly read personal finance publications, what themes do I see?

Getting out of debt is hard


Saving enough for retirement is almost impossible

leading to

There’s a retirement crisis in America!

A very close cousin of the Pygmalion Effect is the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Say that you can do something, and you will do it.

Say that you cannot do something, and you will fail.

By not having faith in ourselves, we immediately short-circuit our efforts to make a positive change in our financial lives.

I have plenty of clients who did nothing special besides the financial equivalent of put one foot in front of the other, spent less than they earned, didn’t try to shoot for the moon with crazy investments involving pork snout futures or cousin Willy’s new-fangled sweater knittings made from belly button lint that will sweep the nation, and they either have retired or they’re on track to retire.

Did they do something special?


They had a positive attitude that they could live within their means, work to earn more, invest wisely, and do what they needed to do to achieve the goals that they had.

Believe in yourself, and the statue that you build out of your dreams and goals won’t stay ivory forever. It will turn into reality.

Author Profile

John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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