Self-efficacy and the Pygmalion Effect

In any decision involving investments in education there needs to be a consideration of the expected return with respect to expected risk over time. Critically, this requires an assessment of an individual’s own or in the case of parents their child’s ability to achieve an optimal return on their investment in education. The greater the confidence an individual has in achieving a goal, the more resources they will invest. This perception of one’s own ability is called self-efficacy and the greater the belief in one’s self-efficacy the more productive the individual’s efforts (Eden, 1988). However, the complexity of choices in education mean that perceptions are likely to be affected by cognitive biases leading to a problem Benabou and Tirole (2003) termed imperfect self-knowledge.

In this regard, the general availability heuristics (Tversky and Kahneman 1973) play a key role in how individuals resolve information uncertainty and make inferences about their own ability and the perceived ability of others. There are considered to be three general purpose heuristics underlying many intuitive judgements under uncertainty: availability, representativeness, and anchoring with adjustment (Gilovich & Griffin, 2002). These intuitive heuristics are highly efficient decision rules that achieve a good outcome quickly and with little cognitive effort but at the expense of sizeable type 1 errors. For example in social groups, individuals are usually mindful of behaviours that lead to exclusion from a group. Misperceiving a behaviour as leading to ostracism is psychological costly, requiring effort, but is significantly less costly than missing cues that lead to ostracism (Williams, 2007). However, evolution always lags the environmental fitness space that individuals face and for humans our social interactions have grown in complexity in a relatively short space of evolutionary time. These biases are important for perceptions of group identity but also give rise to prejudice and stereotyping. Cognitive biases that favour false alarms over near misses to avoid social exclusion from tight knit groups in the past have now become a liability as social interactions expand.

Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) were first to show how an anchoring and adjustment heuristic can affect the motivation of a student to perform and invest effort into their studies. A cognitive bias, the Pygmalion effect, where the greater the expectation placed upon a student the better they perform. In their experiments, teachers were given randomised reports on each student’s ability. They found that a teacher’s perceptions of a child’s ability had a marked impact on the child’s subsequent academic performance independent of the child’s actual initial ability. This cognitive bias is similar to the ‘hot hand’ effect in basketball (Gilovich et al., 1985) where misperceptions of luck as ability leads to reinforcing improved performance.

In a similar study by Cervone and Peake (1986), undergraduate and high school students were randomly exposed to anchors linked to perceptions of their own ability. Students exposed to a high anchor which indicated high ability persisted longer in tasks than students exposed to a low anchor. Suggesting that task performance is strongly shaped by judgements of self-efficacy independent of innate ability. Perceptions of self-efficacy also influence course choice at university. Hackett and Betz (1989) found that perceptions of self-efficacy were strongly related to choice of mathematics majors at university independent of underlying achievement and performance in mathematics.

Leaver, S. 2016. Behavioural education economics. Routledge handbook of behavioral economics, ed. R. Frantz, S.-H. Chen, K. Dopfer, F. Heukelom, and S. Mousavi, 379–391.



%d bloggers like this: