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What is the Golem Effect?

What is the Golem Effect?

5 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • The science of learning

You’ve probably heard of the Pygmalion Effect, where having high expectations for someone leads to them actually performing better. This effect, rooted in Greek mythology, shows the compelling positive power of expectations

However, you may not be aware of the Golem Effect – the opposite, unfortunately. In Jewish mythology, the Golem was a monster made of clay – unlike Pygmalion’s statue, a Golem is unfinished, raw. The effect takes this name because it describes how having low expectations of someone can lead to them performing worse.

What the research says

The first study to demonstrate the Golem Effect took place in the 1980s. It classified a sample of teachers as biased or unbiased based on their scoring of student work and examined how these teachers treated students, depending on their beliefs of the students’ abilities. In other words: what was the effect of teacher expectations? 

Unbiased teachers treated all students the same, regardless of how they perceived the potential of each student. However, biased teachers treated students more negatively if they perceived them to have low potential. This included behaving in a more dogmatic way towards these students, being less open, flexible and balanced towards them, and not treating them equally. They were also more critical of and less friendly towards these students. The worst part? These students then performed up to 23% worse in tasks, compared to their peers who had been given high expectations.

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What does this mean for you?

This research from education enlightens us about the real-life negative consequences of the Golem Effect. The Golem can rear its ugly head with teacher or parent expectations of students, manager expectations of employees, or coach expectations of athletes…

In schools

Research has identified a four-step process of how teacher expectations affect student performance, which consists in:

  • Creating a warmer climate for and being nicer to students of who they have high expectations;
  • Providing more input to those students – essentially, teaching them more;
  • Allowing those students more opportunities to respond and helping them shape their answer better;
  • Giving more praise and more detailed and constructive feedback to those students.

So, we see the Pygmalion Effect in some children, and the Golem Effect in others. Students we don’t expect enough from miss out on teacher input, leading to lowered school performance. This confirms and perpetuates these low expectations, even with no reliable basis in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle. 

Students who experience low expectations, from teachers or parents, may also develop low self-esteem and feel unable to achieve and succeed. This will limit how much they plan challenging goals to help them grow.

In business

The Golem Effect has a similar influence in the field of business. It’s not uncommon for managers to develop varying expectations for their team. They might believe a certain employee lacks skills, potential, or motivation. This is likely to change the way they manage that employee. They may give them dull, routine tasks, micro-manage them with specific targets and deadlines, and monitor them closely. 

Whether intended or not, the employee learns that they’re not trusted, leading to several negative consequences. They become less motivated and less likely to achieve. They may lack confidence, distrust other employees and their managers, and have a lowered sense of responsibility. Managers may disregard valuable ideas from the employee, and they’re likely to yield lower work productivity. This of course will benefit neither the employee nor the company.

In sports

In the same way, a coach having low expectations for an athlete can lower their performance. One particular study had coaches give their performance expectations for a team and also collected the athletes’ perspectives of how coaches treated teammates. The athletes themselves even perceived that coaches treated lower performing teammates differently. If athletes perform to a lower standard because of the low expectations placed on them by their coaches, this will hinder their career.

Overcoming the Golem Effect

The story from Jewish mythology goes that the Golem grew so violent and out of control that the creature had to be destroyed. Likewise, the Golem Effect can be dangerous in real life and must be overcome.

Be aware

The first step to overcoming the Golem is being aware of it.

Teachers, parents, managers and coaches should be aware of how their expectations can influence the performance of others. Developing their metacognitive strategies can help them better understand their thought processes and how they can fall into common thinking traps such as biased expectations. 

It’s also important for students, employees or athletes themselves to be aware of the Golem Effect and also develop their self-awareness and metacognitive strategies. This can help them to better understand what shapes their behaviour and performance. This way, they can notice when low expectations might be limiting their achievement. It will also equip them with the resilience they need to overcome these expectations and prove them wrong.

Change expectations

It may seem obvious, but the best way to overcome the Golem Effect is to use the Pygmalion Effect. One study found that increasing leader expectations of disadvantaged women led to the Pygmalion Effect. These women, who would have received low expectations before, had now improved their performance. So, if you’re in a position of leadership replace your expectations with high ones.

Final thoughts

At InnerDrive, we strive to help people achieve their full potential. The Golem Effect can stop people from performing to their best abilities. This has negative consequences across several fields of life, and we should all be aware of this great power of expectations. Remember: the best way to help people to achieve and perform well is to believe that they can do so.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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