When the World Took Notice
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” the seminal work by famed UCR psychologist Robert Rosenthal.
By John Warren
The course is named “Seminar in Social Psychology,” but it could be “Wednesdays with Bob.”
At 85, Robert Rosenthal, a distinguished professor of psychology, is in his last year teaching at UC Riverside. David Funder, also a distinguished professor, who first worked with Rosenthal at Harvard University in the early 1980s, urged Rosenthal to host a semester-long brain dump. Funder is the emcee, the inquisitor.
“It’s a strange course,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a class about me.”
On an afternoon at the beginning of fall quarter, psychology graduate students file into the third-floor library in the psychology building, a wall of windows with shades drawn. They drop their backpacks on the ground, set down their water bottles-of-many-colors.
Funder walks in, opens the blinds, then sits at the front of the room with Rosenthal, who is dressed in a white oxford shirt, tie, and slacks, the work uniform he’s worn since his first job, 65 years ago, at the Grace Fernald School. “Move up,” Funder gestures, when students gravitate toward the cheap seats in the rear.
This is a front-row seat to history.
“I didn’t want to miss the chance of doing this,” Funder said later. “Bob is one of the definitive figures in the history of psychology.”
2018 is the 50th anniversary of Rosenthal’s seminal work, “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” a book that transcended academia to capture popular fascination.
Rosenthal was 35 years old in 1968, tenured the previous year at Harvard. “Pygmalion in the Classroom” landed him on the front page of The New York Times, and on the Today show with Barbara Walters — he remembers being introduced to Walters’ newborn baby in the green room.
The research on which the book is based is among the most widely cited studies in the history of psychology. It’s called one of psychology’s most inspiring books, and one of its most controversial.
The book sprang from a notion that progressively captured Rosenthal’s imagination in the 1960s: self-fulfilling prophecies. It led him to this: “It’s shocking how much teaching is done by teachers who think their students can’t learn.”
He called the phenomena of pre-determined classroom outcomes “The Pygmalion Effect,” after the mythological Greek sculptor whose obsession with the ivory statue of a woman brought her to life.
In the Company of Giants
To say Rosenthal is among the most influential psychologists in history isn’t hyperbole. It’s science.
In 2002, “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century” was published in the Review of General Psychology. Psychologists of the 1900s were measured on three quantitative variables and three qualitative variables.
Rosenthal is №84 on that list, which includes the likes of Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and Carl Jung. Scanning the 100, Rosenthal said he met 27 of them; he collaborated with 13. He is one of only 16 still living.
With statistician Gene Glass, he co-founded modern meta-analysis, which transformed scientific research by combining studies to compound probability. He is also among the fathers of psychological principles including experimenter bias and interpersonal expectations.
Rosenthal has an easy, inviting manner, and sprinkles the Wednesday class with anecdotes and stories involving giants of psychology. Most are now famous only to psychology scholars.
Stanley Milgram (№46) is one of the more recognizable. He’s infamous for his experiments on obedience and authority, in which faux electric shocks of increasing intensity were administered to faux subjects.
Their first meeting — on the 14th floor of the then-new William James Hall at Harvard — was an auspicious one. Milgram approached Rosenthal, clicked his heels, saluted, and proclaimed, “Heil!” The stunned Rosenthal later figured it out: it was a sign of solidarity among the two Jewish survivors of Nazi occupation.
Rosenthal’s family fled Nazi-occupied Germany in 1938. They lived for a time in Southern Rhodesia, which was then under British colonial rule, then moved to Queens in New York City.
Five years after the meeting in William James Hall, Harvard knighted Rosenthal with Milgram’s presumed tenure slot. Several years prior, in 1963, Rosenthal had been hired to fill the faculty slot vacated by “turn on, tune in, drop out” Timothy Leary, after the father of psychedelia was fired. He got Leary’s office.
‘Highfalutin’ Hijinks, for Science
As with many psychology experiments, Rosenthal’s “Pygmalion” study was predicated on a mistruth. A San Francisco elementary school principal, Lenore Jacobson, told teachers that Rosenthal had permission to administer an IQ test.
“I wanted something that meant ‘change in intellectual performance,’ but couched in language highfalutin enough to make it sound super-authentic,” Rosenthal said.
In 1965, the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition was given to 18 classrooms, and soon after “results” were leaked to teachers: a handful of students in each classroom were poised to excel. But it was smoke and mirrors. The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition was a standard IQ test, and the “bloomers” were chosen randomly.
Nonetheless, over the next eight months, the 255 control students gained four IQ points, whereas the 65 designated bloomers gained 12.
Rosenthal’s resulting assertion was revolutionary: it was teachers’ belief in pupils’ potential that led to achievement. As powerful, many of the “bloomers” were from low-income Mexican families. Any student could excel, given the right circumstances.
“The conclusions have great significance for this nation,” the author and child psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote in The New Yorker.
Pushback to ‘Pygmalion’
The blowback was swift.
“Many educational psychologists hated it,” Rosenthal said. “They hated it so much they made a whole book about it.”
The book was “Pygmalion Reconsidered; A Case Study in Statistical Inference: Reconsideration of the Rosenthal-Jacobson Data on Teacher Expectancy.”
“Pygmalion was enormously controversial,” said Ralph Rosnow, with whom Rosenthal has collaborated on 16 books. “The way education read it was, ‘You’re saying there’s something wrong with teachers.’”
Opined Columbia University’s Robert Thorndike: “‘Pygmalion’ is so defective technically that one can only regret that it ever got beyond the eyes of the original investigators!”
Rosenthal armored up with the help of a doctoral student named Don Rubin, who would go on to serve for more than 13 years as chief of Harvard’s Department of Statistics. The “Pygmalion Reconsidered” publishers included the Rosenthal-Rubin rebuttal in an appendix.
“They ran the numbers wrong,” said Rosenthal, who provided the naysayer authors with “huge boxes” filled with IBM cards, which could be fed into room-sized computers. “But I knew my statistician was smarter than their statistician.”
Rosenthal’s Reluctant Revolution
In the past 50 years, the research didn’t transform education in the manner some envisioned. Teachers didn’t end up viewing their pupils as bloomers-in-waiting. One enthusiast has referred to “Pygmalion” as “great science that has been underapplied.”
But Rosenthal never intended “Pygmalion” for a general audience. It was too data-heavy for that, he thought. Its mainstream popularity was an accident.
“I didn’t think of it that way; I had the academic’s view of it,” Rosenthal said. “I wasn’t in it to try to change education, or to be the source of the intervention.”
“Wednesdays with Bob” is now over; the fall quarter has ended. Rosenthal’s attention is drawn to the course number: Psych 255. Two hundred and fifty-five — the number of students in the “Pygmalion” control group.
“Isn’t that something,” he mused.
The course number, like the runaway success of his highest-profile work, was just a coincidence.