UCR’s Robert Rosenthal retires following 50th anniversary of “Pygmalion” research

Dr. Robert Rosenthal, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCR, will be completing his final year of formal instruction after the conclusion of an autobiographical course titled “Seminar in Social Psychology.” He held the class just after the semi-centennial anniversary of his most popular research, “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” In an interview with the Highlander, Rosenthal expounded upon his research, popular criticism, personal motivations and his experiences teaching a class he refers to as “Wednesdays with Bob.”

The “Pygmalion Effect,” also known as the “Rosenthal Effect,” is a psychological phenomenon where the expectations of an arbiter affect the performance of a subject in what is known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” The experiment which yielded this result was conducted by studying the increase in the IQ of students under teachers who were falsely informed of their intellectual prowess. Rosenthal and his associates discovered that when teachers believed that roughly 20 percent of students chosen at random were going to be “intellectual bloomers,” those random few actually were more likely to become just that.

There was a significant amount of both criticism and support for the findings, which Rosenthal describes in detail: “It was very well received by some. It was very poorly received by others … educational psychologists in general were the mainstream of the resistance.” He also referenced Richard Snow and Janet Elashoff’s “Pygmalion Reconsidered,” an entire book written in general opposition to his initial claims. Rosenthal looks positively on this experience as an opportunity to allow readers to understand both sides: “the publisher actually sent us the manuscript to comment on … we wrote a little chapter for that book and to the great credit of the publisher, and to our delight, the publisher published our rebuttal of the book, in the book.”

Rosenthal said that such experiences within the field have been rewarding through the years, referencing many of his personal experiences which served as motivation for his research: “I have had so many wonderful, rewarding experiences like, for example, in 1959 organizing this symposium and getting somebody who was as famous as Don Campbell … I was 26, I was pretty young, but I was always in a big hurry.” He also attributes much of his success to the encouragement of family and instructors as a young student: “I married my sweetheart … in the first year of college, and we started having kids so I was in a rush right from the start.” He says he is thankful for “the reinforcement from [his] professors,” and that his career has been predominantly defined by encouragement.

Reflecting upon his career, Rosenthal said, “I have had such luck. My life really has been so much fun.” The same academic spirit also prompted him to abstain from words of motivation to rising scholars at UCR, stating that “if you are an academic you’ve had to work in such a specialized way to get to be an academic now, especially if you’re at a research university.” His autobiographical graduate-level course, PSYC 255, featured other such ideas that he amassed in his 30 years at Harvard and 20 years at UCR, and he says he will do his best to stick around in seminars in an effort to stay connected to the campus.

Rosenthal recalls a “sociology course [he] took on Criminology … on the first day of class [the professor] said ‘everybody please take out a piece of paper. I want you to write down the most recent thing you’ve stolen in your life.’ He was up at the podium and he was looking through these things and he said ‘would the author of this one please stay I would like to talk to them after class.’ And that was me. All I had written was, ‘I haven’t stolen anything but I am young and eager to learn.’”

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