The Golem Effect

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Most teachers have heard of the Pygmalion Effect. It is a psychological term that refers to the art of setting high expectations for individuals. It has been found that people will generally respond to positive thinking. If an environment seeks the best in all individuals and then nourishes those traits people and organizations tend to excel. On the other hand the Golem Effect is tied to negativity and self fulfilling prophecies. Assuming the worst in people is defeating and often leads to failure, mistrust, anger and possibly violence. It is an abusive tactic that tears people and organizations apart and should be avoided in all relationships. 

In my years in education most of my fellow teachers used the Pygmalion Effect to promote success for their students. Now and again someone would be guilty of either wittingly or unwittingly falling prey to the Golem Effect. I would hear such teachers exclaiming that all of the students in the school were lazy gang members and thugs or that an individual student would never amount to anything or even be capable of graduating from high school. Those who expressed such negative ideas tended to have management problems inside their classrooms. Their students were unmotivated and generally expended the lowest common denominator of effort. In other words they felt beaten down and defeated from the outset so they usually just gave up. 

On the other hand there were teachers who were inspiring the very same students to reach incredible levels of excellence simply by continually reinforcing the idea that they had everything they needed to succeed. With positive feedback the students enjoyed a feeling of accomplishment that drove them to work harder and harder. 

I have seen the Pygmalion Effect in all its glory over and over again but unfortunately the Golem Effect still reigns in many corners of education, business, family dynamics and politics. When we demean or demonize people or entire groups with broad generalizations the Golem Effect takes hold. This tendency leads to all manner of “isms” that unfairly categorize people. It creates misunderstandings, divisions, and injustice all derived from a kind of misguided self righteousness.

Those teachers who proclaimed the defects of students as though they were indicators of permanently flawed character may have believed that they were helping but in truth they were unfairly creating a kind of doomsday scenario for those who were victims of their words. Perhaps they believed that it was a waste of time to bother to even attempt to help people who appeared to be unsalvageable. In turn their students felt that they had already been why tossed on a trash heap of judgement that precluded any chance of redemption. They felt that any efforts to improve were fruitless and not worth the effort. The self fulfilling prophecy was an infinite loop that almost ensured that there would never be positive change. In fact it often lead to escalation of the very behaviors that were troublesome in the first place. 

We should all be wary of anyone who hurls generalized accusations or whose expectations for a particular person or group are all negative. When the President of the United States automatically assumes that using mass mail in ballots will lead to hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes he is deftly using the Golem Effect. He is implying before the fact that if he loses the election it must have been because of voter fraud. On the other hand if he wins he will claim that it is because he was able to keep the voting criminals at bay. An entire swath of American voters who vote by mail is judged to be defective and they lose whether they are honest or not. 

The growing anger in our country today is the result of the Golem Effect silently eroding trust in our systems. If we hear that many of our Muslim immigrants are terrorists often enough we become fearful of all Muslims. If we are told that many of the Hispanics coming across our borders are gang members, rapists and criminals we become wary of all Hispanic immigrants. If we hear the BLM protests and demonstrations described as the domain of rioters and looters often enough we begin to fear and denounce even those that have been peaceful. If we only hear about the bad police officers who are rogues and racists we begin to fear all police officers. If we hear an individual being constantly denounced with innuendo and propaganda we may lose all trust in him/her. 


The Golem Effect breaks down trust and may even lead to dire consequences for all parties. Lenin and his allies slowly eroded the Russian peasants’ trust in the Czar that led to a dictatorial government. Hitler and his henchmen created a state of fear and envy in Germany that led to war and genocide. The Golem Effect is negative in all regards and is so abusive that it can tear down individuals, organizations and entire nations. It has the capacity to create so much desperation that people do unspeakable things that would not ordinarily occur to them. 

Golem was a fictional creature who had such a dire effect on the world that he had to be defeated. As humans we surely know that abusive behaviors never lead to positive outcomes. It should be apparent that we need to defend ourselves and our society from anyone who appears to be using the Golem Effect either purposely or unwittingly. It has always been an exceedingly unhealthy way of keeping order and it makes little sense to use it when we have seen over and over again how much better it is to bring out the best in people. 

Of course we sometimes have to punish evil deeds but in the process of doing so we must also be fair. We must take care to judge individuals on the merits of specific situations and when possible work to reshape bad behavior by encouraging the goodness that lies in most people’s souls. Unless there is some underlying defect most people will respond in positive ways to those who assume the best. Embracing high expectations and believing that they are possible should always be the foundation for solving problems.  

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