• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 15th October, 2007

When pessimism only makes matters worse

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.” So explains Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. The idea that people, at least sometimes, behave according to how they are treated (rather than treated in response to their behavior) is called the Pygmalion Effect or self-fulfilling prophecy.Can the beliefs of one person indeed affect the behavior of another? A number of studies on the effects of teachers’ beliefs on children’s academic performance suggest that they can. When teachers have high expectations, children tend to rise to them. Researchers at Iowa State in the US wondered if this controversial phenomenon can help us understand children’s alcohol use. Specifically, they wanted to know whether a mother’s erroneous beliefs about her children’s use of alcohol can affect how much their kids actually drink. Additionally, they wondered whether the effects of such a self-fulfilling prophecy could increase over time.They examined data from a group of 487 mothers and their children (spanning the time when the children were in grades 7-9) and another group of 288 (spanning grades 6 through 12) from a Midwestern US state.They found that a mother’s false beliefs about her children’s alcohol use at a give moment predicted children’s actual alcohol use at later points, even after taking into account other possible influences on children’s behavior, such as their parents’ and friends’ drinking habits and their parents’ income, education, and parenting approaches. Additionally, mothers who over-estimated their children’s use (or pessimistic mothers) had a particularly strong influence on their children’s actual behavior. So, over time, the drinking behavior of children of pessimistic mothers worsened, and diverged more widely from the drinking of children of optimistic mothers.What remains unclear is why parents’ optimism or pessimism matters. As the research stands, it appears that platitudes about the power of “believing in your children” just might be true.For more about the Pygmalion Effect, see: Expectations and Student Outcomes by Kathleen Cotton Summary of “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Effects of Mothers' Beliefs on Children's Alcohol Use: Accumulation, dissipation, and stability over time” by Stephanie Madon, Jennifer Willard, Max Guyll, Linda Trudeau, and Richard Spoth in Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Volume 90, Issue 6, pp911-925, June 2006.

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