10.11: Observer Effects

The Roman poet Ovid created a legend around the story of Pygmalion, who carved a statue of a beautiful woman out of ivory, fell in love with his creation, and persuaded the gods to bring Galatea to life. In George Bernard Shaw's updated version of the myth, in his play Pygmalion, Pygmalion is replaced by Professor Higgins, a speech expert, and the raw material out of which he aspired to create his Galatea is not a block of ivory but an untutored Cockney flower girl called Eliza Doolittle. You may be more familiar with the musical version, My Fair Lady, in which Rex Harrison transformed Audrey Hepburn from flower girl to lady by talking and singing at her.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson carried this story a step further in their book Pygmalion in the Classroom.1 They argue that we are all Galateas, created by the expectations other people have of us, and that we are all Pygmalions, creating other people by the expectations we have of them. Each of us is supported by (or trapped in, depending on your point of view) a web of expectations other people have of us, and our behaviour is determined, to some extent, by those expectations.

This conclusion was based on an experiment they conducted in which an intelligence test was administered to elementary school students on the pretense that it could predict which children would "bloom" academically the next year. The teachers were given a list of potential bloomers, ostensibly selected by the test but actually selected randomly. The only difference between those "special" children and the others was, therefore, in the minds of the teachers. However, the chosen children did indeed show significantly greater intellectual growth than the other children. Their IQ scores increased, their school test performance improved, and they were judged by their teachers to be more intellectually curious, happier, and less in need of social approval.

While writing The Psychology of Teaching, the author tried to include a paragraph on this Pygmalion Effect.2 However, in the process of writing it, he became aware that the Pygmalion Effect was only one of many such phenomenon, in which what is observed is changed by the act of observing it. The paragraph expanded into a chapter called Observer Effects. Figure 10-1 lists a series of personal experiences, during that period, which suggested how widespread observer effects are.

Pollyanna and Cassandra are, of course, looking at the same thing. The very different scenarios, described in the last two chapters, illustrate the importance of our different subjective maps of the objective world. The optimist sees the glass as half-full, the pessimist as half-empty. They are both objectively correct. It is a matter of perception.

Technology is much more complex than a glass, whether half-full or half-empty. The analogy may serve some function if expanded. If the glass is half-full/empty of whiskey, the optimistic drinker will see it as half-full; however, if the glass is half-full/empty of medicine, the optimistic child would see it as half-empty. That is, some technologies are intrinsically good and some intrinsically bad, despite arguments that technologies are neutral. If the glass is half-full of whiskey, the optimistic drinker will see it as half-full whereas the optimistic temperance worker will see it as half-empty. Thus, even if neither bad nor good, our attitude defines it as bad or good.

Let us illustrate the observer effect with two cases in which the same objective facts about the human impact of electronic technology are perceived in different ways.

1   Robert Rosenthal & Lenore Jacobson, Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectations and Pupil's Intellectual Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.

2   W. Lambert Gardiner, The Psychology of Teaching. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole, 1980.