The Golem Effect: A self-fulfilling prophecy for children with ADHD

The golem effect is a psychological phenomenon similar to the Pygmalion effect, where people with greater expectations placed upon them perform at a higher level. In contrast, the golem effect occurs when low expectations cause poorer performance by the individual. These effects are most often studied in the classroom environment, where kids are often compared to one another and teachers’ attention can cause profound developmental differences. For example, Chaikin et al. conducted a study examining the effects of undergraduates tutoring a 12-year-old boy with varying expectations. The three experimental groups were told that the boy was either bright /dull, or were told nothing at all about his intellect. They found that tutors with the “bright” pupil, “smiled more, had more direct eye gaze, leaned forward more, and nodded their heads up and down more than did control tutors or tutors who thought their pupils were dull.”

With regard to ADHD and other disorders, there is worry that children who suffer will have lower expectations, either behavioral or intellectual, and as a result, will perform worse.

The psychological foundation of the golem effect is likely a combination of expectancy and agency theories. Under the expectancy theory, proposed by Victor Vroom, individuals are more likely to engage in activities where there is a high expectation of being successful. This theory relates to the “expector” in the scenario: he or she sets low expectations, so that the subordinate does not require much effort to meet them, resulting in lower performance. The agency theory on the other hand, proposed by Rowe and O’Brian, focuses on the “expectee”. Here, because the expector more closely monitors children with low expectations, the children feel distrusted and opportunistically engage in the poorer behavior expected of them.

Regardless of the cause, which has yet to be experimentally confirmed, it is vital that research continues to prevent this self-fulfilling prophecy in children with ADHD. There is limited research surrounding the golem effect due to ethical limitations (namely, that conducting research involves operationalizing negative expectancies and performance). Despite this, some research has been conducted in the context of children with ADHD. Tonya Clarke of Capella University performed a study looking at the correlation between teachers’ perceptions of students with ADHD and their use of supportive instructional strategies and found that there was only a small correlation; however, professional development is necessary because, “teachers generally have a low perception of students with ADHD and there is a low occurrence of ADHD appropriate strategies being used in the classrooms,” citing the proficiency levels for perception and strategy at both below 60%.

The golem effect for children with ADHD is not only applicable to a classroom environment. There is evidence of it in the household too, especially in families with multiple children. In 1999, Mercedes Almeida-Rosenberg proposed “The Pygmalion Project” for families of children diagnosed with ADHD: “The Pygmalion Project is intended as a seven-week intervention during which children and parents learn: To reframe behaviors, problem solving, behavior management, effective communication, and social skills building.” It aims to reduce acting out behaviors of the parent and child and to reduce parental stress, among other things.

While it may not be necessary for your family to undergo the Pygmalion Project, it is important to be aware of the golem effect both in the classroom and the home, as the negative feedback cycle can have devastating and compounding effects.