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This article appeared in September 2013, in Romanian, in

Treat people the way you want them to be, not the way they are now, and they will change accordingly. In social psychology this phenomenon is called the “Pygmalion effect” and represents the positive side of self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m writing about it now because school has just begun.

It was demonstrated by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in a famous experiment in 1968: the two psychologists went to an elementary school in San Francisco at the beginning of the school year, asked all students to take a test called “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition”, and then presented the results to the professors.

Teachers found that approximately 20% of students are in a phase of accelerated cognitive development („blooming”, „growth spurters”). The students in question were clearly nominated, but teachers were asked to behave the same with everyone over the next year and to keep the student’s names secret.

After 8 months, tests showed that the nominated children had an increase in school performance by 15% higher than the control group in the first grade and by 10% higher in the second grade. And now comes the surprise: teachers finally found out that the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition doesn’t exist, that the students were randomly selected and that the only thing which increased the student’s performance was the fact that teachers were expecting it and treated them as such. The more expectations you have, the better people will perform.

The past days at the Enescu Festival, while listening to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 1, I found myself (like an eternal optimist I am) thinking about how the “Pygmalion effect” would be better applied in Romania.

Obviously, first of all, to children. If I, as a parent, treat my child as if he or she can become the first in their class, or as if he or she likes to go out and play sports, he or she will slowly study better and will prefer going out and playing sports over Minecraft. If I, as a teacher, don’t look at my students like they’re lazy, but I encourage and treat them as the responsible people I trust they will become, they will pass their final exam. And they will respect me more.

Second, to employees. The classic Romanian boss certainly knows that his subordinates are to blame. By default. And he knows that if doesn’t keep an eye on them and stops micromanaging, not only they won’t work, but they will run home with all the xerox paper and pens. I think that a manager who decides to make an experiment and offer unconditionally for six months some goodwill, trust and independence to his employees will have pleasant surprises.

I also thought about Romanian teachers. What if everyone trusted that all teachers are well-trained and well-intentioned and treated them as such? Well, then parents will understand that they have to instill in their children respect for school. Students will give studying a chance. The society will put the teachers back on the pedestal from where they were taken down by the “cool” people.

And the teachers will be paid according to the social good they do. Ok, but not all teachers are well-trained or well-intentioned. Some pass their finals with low grades, others teach with contempt and sarcasm outdated curriculum. Does this mean that we need to fall into a negative generalization just because we are afraid of a hasty positive generalization? That all teachers are incompetent and lack interest and should be treated as such? I’d try to have a little more trust.

And now the cherry on top: the political class. I know it’s a long shot, but I’m doing an exercise of imagination.

What if everyone (including politicians) would trust that this is the political class from which great statesmen will arise? Well, first of all, the opposition would have an alternative government (what a dream!) and its members would debate objectively and not ad hominem or ad baculum things like Roşia Montană or stray dogs. (Now I realize that I miss a debate. Like in the old times, when the democracy was more mature. Iliescu versus Constantinescu.

I even miss Florin Călinescu’s box ring). Which makes me think of the press. Press would treat politicians just like Marius Tucă treated them. Or, before him, the inventor of the talk show in Romania, Iosif Sava. But how would we, the electorate, treat them?

First of all, I think that we would be better informed about who we vote with. I would like a poll to find out how many Romanians know who their senator or deputy is. I don’t have it, so I will make an estimation: under 20%. How many know at least which party he belongs to? Under 50%. How many knew, in the voting day, the names of at least two candidates, and not just the logo of their favorite party? 10%.

Second of all, we would give up group thinking or the principle “lesser of two evils”. And the effect, after this science fiction scenario? I don’t think politicians will change overnight, but I think this treatment will make them responsible. And, anyway, the failures of society would be attenuated.

I realize that I’ve kept repeating the word “trust”. A few years ago, I asked a teacher, a friend of mine, whose opinion I respect, what would change in Romanian people if he had a magic wand. He said: lack of trust. I think that this Pygmalion effect can happen in Romania if we have more trust in each other. And in ourselves. Who starts?

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