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Do you ever make a prediction and fancy yourself prescient when your prediction “comes true?”
You may not believe yourself to be a fortune-teller, but you likely find yourself to be surprisingly accurate with your predictions at least once in a while.
For instance, you may predict that a project you are working on will turn out exceedingly well, and feel confident in your ability to foresee the future when your hard work pays off and your project is received positively.
Alternatively, you might expect that a speech you have to give at a work event will go terribly, and you feel no surprise when you stutter, mumble, and frequently forget your next point while speaking.
Although you could take these instances as evidence that you know yourself and your abilities quite well (and this may be true as well), you might not think about the effects your expectations have on your behavior.
When our beliefs and expectations influence our behavior at the subconscious level, we are enacting what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This article contains:
- What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Definition/Meaning
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Psychology
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Sociology: A Look at the Theory of Robert Merton
- Rosenthal and the Pygmalion Effect
- The Cycle of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Depression
- Examples of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
- How Does it Shape Communication?
- 6 Self-fulfilling Prophecy Quotes
- Book Recommendations + PDF
- A Take Home Message
What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Definition/Meaning
You’ve surely heard of self-fulfilling prophecies before, but we’ll cover a basic definition to make sure we’re on the same page.
A self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a belief or expectation that an individual holds about a future event that manifests because the individual holds it (Good Therapy, 2015).
For example, if you wake up and immediately think—for whatever reason or for no particular reason at all—that today is going to be a terrible day, your attitude might make your prediction come true. You may unconsciously work to affirm your belief by ignoring the positive, amplifying the negative, and behaving in ways that are unlikely to contribute to an enjoyable day.
This concept is a popular one in pop culture and oft-referenced by self-help gurus, life coaches, and others looking to make their living by motivating and encouraging others. One of the classic examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy comes from the Greek story of Oedipus.
In the story, Oedipus’ father Laius is warned that one day his son will kill him. To avoid meeting this fate, he abandons the child and leaves him to die. However, Oedipus was found and raised by foster parents, under the assumption that they were his real parents. One day, he is also confronted with a dire warning—that he will kill his father and marry his widowed mother. Of course, Oedipus has no wish to kill the man he believes is his father or marry the woman he believes is his mother, so he abandons his home and foster parents and heads off to the city.
In the city, he meets a stranger and ends up in a fight with him. Once Oedipus kills the strange man, he marries his widow. He later learns that the man he killed was his actual father and that his new bride is actually his mother. By trying to avoid fate, both Laius and Oedipus ensured that the prophecy would manifest.
This compelling tale helped the self-fulfilling prophecy to become a popular trope in literature and film, but it’s also a much-researched concept in psychology.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Psychology
Psychologists have found strong evidence for the impact of our beliefs and expectations on outcomes, particularly when we are convinced that our predictions will manifest, and even when we don’t necessarily consciously know that we hold the expectation.
A commonly understood example of the self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology is what is known as the placebo effect (Isaksen, 2012). The placebo effect refers to the improvements in outcomes measured even when the participants did not receive any meaningful treatment, which is caused by the participants’ belief in the effectiveness of the “treatment” they received. This effect was discovered during clinical trials of treatments and can be so strong that new measures were put in place to account for its impact on an experiment’s findings.
Experiments on the placebo effect have proven that belief is a very powerful thing!
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Sociology: A Look at the Theory of Robert Merton
Not only is the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy an important one in psychological research, it is also a well-known phenomenon in the field of sociology, where it was first discovered and defined by sociologist Robert Merton.
Merton was born in 1910 to poor immigrants from Eastern Europe and raised in Philadelphia, where he became fascinated with sociology after attending a class at Temple College. After graduating, he moved on to Harvard and began studying under some of the leading sociologists of the time. By his second year, he was already publishing with some of these leading sociologists, and he eventually became one of the most influential social scientists himself (Calhoun, 2003).
Perhaps it was his upbringing in one of the “slums” of South Philadelphia that informed his theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy; after all, his is one of the classic “American dream” trajectories that is usually accompanied by a strong conviction in one’s talents and abilities.
Merton coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” in 1948, defining it as:
“A false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1968, p. 477).
In other words, he noticed that sometimes a belief brings about consequences that cause the reality to match the belief. Generally, those at the center of a self-fulfilling prophecy don’t understand that their belief caused the consequences they expected or feared; it is more unintentional effect than self-motivation or self-confidence.
These prophecies can involve intrapersonal processes (i.e., an individual’s belief affects his or her own behavior) and/or interpersonal processes (i.e., an individual’s belief affects another’s behavior). The placebo effect is one example of an interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecy, while expectations about a spouse cheating that lead to that spouse cheating would be considered an interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecy (Biggs, 2009).
Although self-fulfilling prophecies can manifest in a variety of ways, Merton was most interested in understanding how the phenomenon plays out in racial prejudice and discrimination. He noticed that people with prejudices about individuals of other races were likely to treat them in such a way that these individuals were actually encouraged to behave in ways that confirmed the prejudices. For example, those who considered black people to be intellectually inferior would avoid talking to them about anything that could be considered intellectual, giving them no room to prove the prejudiced individual wrong.
Unsurprisingly, when a whole group of people is treated as if they are intellectually inferior, they are not given the opportunities that are afforded to others to add to their knowledge and improve their abilities. Since they do not have the opportunities to boost their knowledge and abilities, their average performance is lower than others, making it seem as if they truly are intellectually inferior.
Rosenthal and the Pygmalion Effect
These studies hinted at the idea that, not only do our expectations for ourselves influence outcomes, our expectations of others also have an impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior toward them.
The classic experiment by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in the 1960s showed that this idea was accurate. Findings from this experiment (and other subsequent explorations) provided evidence that teacher expectations of students exerted influence over student performance, over and above any inherent differences in talent or intelligence.
The researchers conducted their experiment at a public elementary school, where they chose a group of children at random and told teachers that these students had taken the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition and were identified as “growth spurters.” They explained that these children had a lot of potential and would likely experience a great deal of intellectual growth within the next year.
They gathered performance data on all students and compared the “ordinary” students’ gains with the gains of the “growth spurters” and found that those students the teachers expected to do well (who were chosen at random) actually did show greater improvements than their peers.
Since the children were not told of their false Test of Inflected Acquisition results, the only explanation for these outcomes is that the teachers’ expectations influenced student performance.
This effect, known as the Pygmalion Effect, is an example of the other-focused self-fulfilling prophecy; as Rosenthal put it,
“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur” (Rosenthal & Babad, 1985).
The Cycle of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Getting back to self-fulfilling prophecies in general, it’s easy to see how such prophecies can lead to cycles—good or bad.
When we believe something about ourselves, we are more likely to act in ways that correspond to our beliefs, thus reinforcing our beliefs and encouraging the same behavior. Similarly, when we believe something about others, we may act in ways that encourage them to confirm our assumptions, thus reinforcing our beliefs about them.
We don’t think much about these cycles when the outcomes are positive, but we have a common term for these cycles when the outcomes are negative: vicious cycles.
A person who is constantly doubting his ability to perform at his job may inadvertently sabotage himself; since he is sure his work is sub-par, he may avoid putting much time and effort into it or avoid doing it altogether. This results in a lack of practice and experience, which only serves to make his work even less competent, leading to even more self-doubt and even lower self-esteem.
This image visualizes the cycle when interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecies are in play:
- First, we harbor a belief or set of beliefs about ourselves.
- These beliefs influence our actions towards others.
- Our actions towards others, shaped by our beliefs about them, impact their beliefs about us.
- Their beliefs cause them to act in ways consistent with those beliefs towards us, which reinforces our initial beliefs about ourselves.
This cycle can apply in many scenarios and situations, but it’s particularly easy to identify each step in situations like Rosenthal’s famous Pygmalion effect studies (although with an alteration to the first step):
- Teachers may have preconceived notions about some of their students; some they believe are inherently talented and promising students, while others they see as troublemakers or intellectually inferior.
- A teacher may inadvertently treat the “promising” students in ways consistent with their beliefs (e.g., offering them more help, encouraging them to do well) and “troublesome” students in ways similarly consistent with their beliefs (e.g., deciding not to invest much effort into teaching them, allowing them to skate by with mediocre work).
- The students may become to think of themselves as their teacher does; the promising students feel confident and motivated, while the troublesome students feel unintelligent and neglected.
- The students might then act in ways that match their beliefs about themselves, reinforcing the teacher’s initial assumptions about them.
The cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies can be positive for the “promising” students, but the cycle has a lot of potential to damage those who are assumed to be incompetent or lacking (by themselves and/or by others).
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Depression
Unsurprisingly, this cyclical nature of self-fulfilling prophecies can play a role in the development and continuing struggle against depression.
A person suffering from depression may hold some very negative thoughts about herself, thoughts like:
- “I’m worthless.”
- “I can’t function properly.”
- “I’m unlovable.”
- “No one likes me, they all think I’m a downer.”
- “Since no one likes me, I have no friends.”
Thoughts like “I’m worthless,” and “I can’t function properly” may persuade her to give up on self-development and stop trying to add to her knowledge, improve her skills, or enhance her emotional resilience. “After all,” she thinks, “what does it matter? It won’t work anyway.”
If her thoughts continue this way for a prolonged period of time, she might find that she truly can’t function normally anymore; she may become too depressed and worthless to do even the most basic of functions, like speaking to others, making food, or showering.
Thoughts like “I’m unlovable,” “No one likes me, they all think I’m a downer,” and “Since no one likes me, I have no friends,” can easily transfer into reality. She may avoid interacting with others at all, since she is sure they will not enjoy her company, leaving her with no friends. She might interact with others but behave in a negative and unfriendly way since she is sure they will be unfriendly or unwelcoming to her, causing those she interacts with to form opinions consistent with her negative thoughts.
Depression is particularly insidious because of cycles such as these; as Dr. Allan Schwartz puts it:
“All of us have to clear ourselves of this ‘poor me’ way of thinking. It is not helpful and not realistic. Negative thinking is contagious because it leads to negative talk and the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you convince yourself that your life is awful then you go about making your life awful” (2010).
Examples of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
In addition to the examples listed above, the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies can be seen in plenty of other areas of life. Examples in three such areas are listed below.
Examples in Education
A classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy (/the Pygmalion effect) in education comes from Rosenthal’s groundbreaking 1968 study on teachers and students.
Teachers who are given a glowing report on certain students are more likely to work with those students to help them improve their skills and add to their knowledge, which in turn causes those students to perform better in their academic work.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: when teachers are warned over a student’s bad behavior or inability to perform, they may inadvertently treat the student as if they are incompetent, unintelligent, or disobedient. Students pick up on these assumptions and expectations and may begin to internalize these beliefs, leading them to act in ways that reflect the teacher’s initial beliefs.
Examples in the Workplace
Perhaps the most salient example of self-fulfilling prophecies in the workplace is one of the first workplace interactions—the interview. Imagine two people with the same qualifications: the same education, the same experience, the same skills. One is supremely confident in her ability to ace the interview, while the other is feeling insecure about his interview skills and predicts he will not get the job offer. The individual who is confident goes into the interview with a smile and answers every question confidently, while the individual who is insecure stumbles through his answers and second guesses himself every time he speaks.
Who do you think is more likely to get the job? Clearly, the interviewee who believes in herself and acts on that belief is more likely to get a job offer than the interviewee who expects to fail!
This prophecy can play out in the work itself as well. If an employee is assigned a new task that she feels is outside of her wheelhouse, she might think to herself, “There’s no way I can do this. I’m going to fail.” The employee might not notice that she puts less effort into the project, thinking it’s a lost cause. She might avoid asking others for help since she believes the project is doomed anyway. When the project indeed fails, she might think to herself, “I was right, I just couldn’t do this task,” without realizing that her behavior all but guaranteed that the project would fail.
The workplace can also act as host to interpersonal processes that result in self-fulfilling prophecies. Imagine that the employee in the last example has a different attitude about her ability to complete the project; she may feel nervous about taking on a new task that will require her to learn new knowledge and practice new skills, but she knows she can do it! However, her manager is less certain. He decides not to invest too much time and effort into the project since he doesn’t think it will turn out well. He neglects to connect his employee with the people she needs to talk to and refuses to enroll her in the training that will help her develop those required skills since he feels it will be a waste of her time and company money. Because she does not receive the resources she needs to complete the project successfully, it is indeed doomed to fail—but it is the manager who doomed it, not the employee herself.
Examples in Relationships
There are many examples of the self-fulfilling prophecy within relationships.
If a woman starts dating a man under the assumption that he is not really “relationship material” or “marriage material,” she will likely not take the relationship seriously and refrain from investing too much time or effort into it. Because of her lack of investment into the relationship, her partner may feel that she is distant and unavailable, and he probably won’t stick around very long. When he leaves, she might think that she was ultimately proven right—he wasn’t relationship material. However, she may fail to notice that her assumption influenced her behavior and that she actually caused the relationship to flounder through her own behavior.
On a more positive note, a self-fulfilling prophecy can also lead to good outcomes in relationships. If a man begins dating someone who he feels strongly connected to, he may feel that this person is “the one.” Since he expects the relationship to last, he treats his partner with love and respect and invests his time and energy into making it fulfilling and happy for both partners. This love and attention ensures that his partner is satisfied with the relationship as well, and causes his partner to invest a similar level of time and energy into the relationship. Because his prediction that the relationship will be a long and happy one causes him to behave in a way that contributes to a long and happy relationship, that is indeed the outcome that manifests.
How Does it Shape Communication?
The examples above show that self-fulfilling prophecies can have profound effects on relationships, and these effects are brought about or enhanced by the way that we communicate with one another.
When we hold internal beliefs or expectations or make predictions about someone, we often behave toward them in a manner consistent with those beliefs and expectations. For example, if we are told that someone we are about to meet is a wonderful and interesting person with a sparkling personality, we will likely go out of our way to talk with him, be friendlier than usual, and ask him lots of questions. When he senses our interest in him and enjoys our attention, he will likely return that interest and give full, engaging answers to our questions. He might be someone that nobody would describe as interesting or labeled as a “sparkling personality,” but our attention makes it feel that way and his behavior follows suit.
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, our beliefs and expectations of someone will seep into our communications with them.
This phenomenon can be seen in how stereotypes are formed and reinforced; an individual may see someone of a certain race behaving in a particular way (or the individual may be told about how people of a certain race behave) and form a global assumption about all people of that race. The next time they see someone of the same race, they will likely treat them as a person who behaves according to their assumption.
From research on the Pygmalion effect, we know that when individuals are treated as if they are hard-working and capable people, they are more inclined to work hard and believe in their own capability; conversely, when people are treated as unfriendly or intellectually inferior, they are more likely to act in a more unfriendly manner or to doubt their intelligence and keep their deeper thoughts to themselves (Aaronson, 2005).
6 Self-fulfilling Prophecy Quotes
Sometimes all we need to snap us out of a funk or remind us of a simple, but elusive truth is a good quote. Use the quotes below to help you remember the importance of your own beliefs and expectations about your abilities.
“It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which more than anything will affect a successful outcome.”
“Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Khang Kijarro Nguyen:
“If you expect the battle to be insurmountable, you’ve met the enemy. It’s you.”
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
Robert K. Merton:
“The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation, evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.”
Book Recommendations + PDF
If this piece sparked your interest in learning more about self-fulfilling prophecies and the Pygmalion Effect, give these books a try:
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education by Robert T. Tauber (Amazon)
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Social, Psychological, and Physiological Effects of Expectancies by Russell A. Jones (Amazon)
- Your Life is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Teens by M. E. Forbes (Amazon)
- Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, 1st Edition by Lee Jussim (Amazon)
- How the Economy Works: Confidence, Crashes, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies by Roger E. A. Farmer (Amazon)
- Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (Amazon)
For a quicker overview of this phenomenon than a book can give, check out these articles on self-fulfilling prophecies:
- The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy by Merton (article)
- The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Close Relationships by Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, & Khouri (article)
- Social Perception and Social Reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy by Jussim (article)
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Literature Review by Sharma & Sharma (article)
A Take Home Message
I hope you found this exploration of self-fulfilling prophecies interesting and insightful. It’s certainly one of those concepts that is both meaningful in an academic context as well as a more personally relevant context.
Now that you know about how our beliefs and assumptions can impact our own behavior and that of those around us, be sure to keep this phenomenon in mind, both when you talk to others and in your own self-talk.
Negative talk can become reality, but the good news is that positive talk can become reality as well.
Thank you for reading, and I wish you the most positive of self-fulfilling prophecy cycles!
What are your thoughts on self-fulfilling prophecies? Do you have any salient examples of such experiences in your own life? Do you use what you know about phenomena like this to shape your interactions with others? Let us know in the comments!
- Aaronson, L. (2005). Self-fulfilling prophecies: Expectations of stereotypes will come to pass if people believe in them. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200503/self-fulfilling-prophecies
- Biggs, M. (2009). Self-fulfilling prophecies. In P. Bearman & P. Hedstrӧm (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of analytical sociology (pp. 294-314). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Calhoun, C. (2003). Robert K. Merton remembered. American Sociological Association. Retrieved from http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/footnotes/mar03/indextwo.html
- Good Therapy. (2015). Self-fulfilling prophecy. Good Therapy PsychPedia. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/self-fulfilling-prophecy
- Isaksen. J. V. (2012). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Popular Social Science. Retrieved from http://www.popularsocialscience.com/2012/12/27/the-self-fulfilling-prophecy/
- Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. The Antioch Review, 8, 504-521. doi:10.2307/4609267
- Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3, 16-20. doi:10.1007/BF02322211
- Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad. (1985). Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational Leadership, 43, 36–39.
- Schwartz, A. (2010). Woe is me, the self fulfilling prophecy. MentalHelp.net – Disorders & Issues. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/woe-is-me-the-self-fulfilling-prophecy/
- Tartakovsky, M. (2015). How to step pessimistic self-fulfilling prophecies from shaping your life. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-stop-pessimistic-self-fulfilling-prophecies-from-shaping-your-life/