The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right

If you expect a dazzling feat, you might just get one.

Many people believe that their pets are of unusual intelligence and can understand everything they say, often with stories of abnormal behavior to back it up. In the late 19th century, one man made such a claim about his horse—and appeared to have evidence to prove it to anyone.

Wilhelm Von Osten was a teacher and horse trainer who believed animals could learn to read or count. Von Osten’s initial attempts with dogs and a bear were unsuccessful, but when he began working with an unusual horse, he ended up changing our understanding of psychology. Known as Clever Hans, the horse in question could answer questions with 90 percent accuracy by tapping his hoof. He could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and tell the time and the date.

Clever Hans could also read and understand questions written or asked in German. Crowds flocked to see the horse, and the scientific community soon grew interested. Researchers studied the horse, looking for signs of trickery. Yet they found none. The horse could answer questions asked by anyone, even if Von Osten was absent. This indicated that no signaling was at play. For a while, the world believed the horse was truly clever.

Then psychologist Oskar Pfungst turned his attention to Clever Hans. Assisted by a team of researchers, he uncovered two anomalies. When blinkered or behind a screen, the horse could not answer questions. Likewise, he could respond only if the questioner knew the answer. From these observations, Pfungst deduced that Clever Hans was not making any mental calculations. Nor did he understand numbers or language in the human sense. Although Von Osten had intended no trickery, the act was false.

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