“Words will never hurt [you]?” Right.
Check this out:
There’s a wealth of psychological data that suggests people live up (or down) to the expectations of others, even when those expectations are communicated in subtle ways. It’s called the Pygmalion effect, and it has been well documented. A famous 1965 Harvard Study, “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” confirmed that the beliefs teachers have about their students matter. When teachers in the study saw students as failures, sure enough, those kids were more likely to fail. It’s not a stretch to think that the same consequence could result from the labeling of schools.
—Liz Dwyer, in “The Pygmalion Effect: Does Calling It a ‘Failing School’ Make It One,” for GOOD
If you didn’t catch it in the quote, speaking someone else’s fate into existence is called “The Pygmalion Effect.” Essentially: People live up to your positive or negative expectations for them.
So calling someone fat likely doesn’t help them become any healthier, so much as it cements in their mind that they’re “fat.” And publicly touting the fact that a school is failing, evidently, perpetuates it’s “failing” all the more.
A downward spiral, if there ever was one.
It’s things like this that make me wonder why we get off on telling people how they don’t live up to our expectations. The “Pygmalion Pattern”¹ really is obvious. It’s the reason we’re able to gossip over the water-cooler about the same person day in and day out: People don’t change.
Likely, they’re not changing because we’re not letting them believe they can. Maybe their lack of progress isn’t so much their problem as it’s our problem. And, maybe (just maybe), the better alternative to letting someone know how they’re falling short is encouraging them to develop in the areas that they excel (whatever those may be).
As much as I value critique², critique that’s not built on a foundation of encouragement will (often) result in people turning into the very thing you’re warning them about.