Find out about the theory and research behind this concept and how to avoid its ill effects.
Have you ever predicted something in your life that later occurred just the way you expected? Maybe it was that you knew you’d give a terrible presentation, and just as you’d predicted, your speech was a rambling mess. Or, a few months ago, you had a feeling that your significant other would soon lose their interest in you, and lo-and-behold, you are single again.
Sometimes we just have that feeling deep inside that we know precisely how something will play out or how someone – or ourselves – will behave in a specific situation. And when our predictions come true, we perceive them as evidence that we know how people act or how the gears of society turn.
But what if it is us and our beliefs that turn those gears and bring about the outcomes we expect? This may sound like a blurb of a science fiction novel, but it is a scientific concept we call a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this article, we’ll discuss the theory behind self-fulfilling prophecies and dig into the research about this concept.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief about a future event that leads people to act a certain way, ultimately bringing about the expected outcome. In other words, our expectations can come true by influencing our behaviors. A striking aspect of self-fulfilling prophecies is that these predictions may be divorced from objective reality at the beginning but have the power to alter people’s behavior in such a way that they become the new reality in the end.
Typically, a self-fulfilling prophecy consists of a three-step loop. The first step is the prophecy itself, which is a person’s belief about a future outcome. The second step of the loop is the behavioral response. This might be the attitude of the person, their behavior as a response to their predictions, or it may include the reactions of others. The third step is when the prophecy comes true due to the actions in the second step. Moreover, the occurrence of the anticipated outcome confirms the original belief and primes the person to hold on to the same notion in similar situations in the future.
The concept of self-fulfilling prophecies has been known for millennia, as there are many examples in mythology and literature of several cultures. In fact, the philosopher Karl Popper named this same phenomenon “the Oedipus effect” in his book The Poverty of Historicism (Popper, 1957) after the Greek mythology character, Oedipus, who fulfills a tragic prophecy by taking actions to avoid it. Nonetheless, the widely-used term “self-fulfilling prophecy” was coined in the mid-20th century by a sociologist named Robert Merton (Merton, 1948).
One of the most prominent examples of self-fulfilling prophecies in psychology research is the placebo vs. nocebo effect. Briefly, a placebo effect is observing a positive health outcome following an inactive treatment (Crum and Phillips, 2015). A nocebo effect is the opposite of this observation when the health outcome is negative (Crum and Phillips, 2015). In both cases, the health outcome is brought about by the power of belief; when the person believes they receive a beneficial treatment, they report positive changes to their health, but when they think they receive a harmful treatment, they report undesirable effects.
A classic experiment
In a classic experiment done in the 1960s, researchers chose two groups of students at random at an elementary school. They told the teachers that they identified the first group of students as “growth-spurters” who have a high potential for intellectual growth and the second group as the ordinary students who are expected to develop at an average pace (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968).
Eight months later, when the researchers revisited the classrooms, they administered IQ tests to both groups of students and discovered that the students in the growth-spurter group tested significantly higher even though they were equal before (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968). Upon further inspection, the researchers noticed that the teachers’ expectations of a student changed their behavior toward them, such as giving the growth-spurter kids more attention and support, which then was internalized by the students, altering their beliefs and actions, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy about students’ intellectual growth (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968).
Self-fulfilling prophecies can have positive or negative effects, depending on the starting false belief. For instance, a placebo effect is a positive self-fulfilling prophecy, whereas a nocebo effect is a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly, a teacher’s opinion about a student can be positive or negative, affecting the student’s success by enhancing or weakening it.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are false beliefs that cause people to act in a certain way, which results in the occurrence of the original predictions. Sociology and psychology research have provided a lot of information about how self-fulfilling prophecies can affect individuals or populations, and there are numerous everyday examples of self-fulfilling prophecies we can learn from.
- Crum, A., & Phillips, D. J. (2015). Self-fulfilling prophesies, placebo effects, and the social-psychological creation of reality. Emerging trends in the social and behavioral sciences, 1-14.
- Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. The Antioch Review, 8(2), 193-210.
- Popper, K. R. (1957). The poverty of historicism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20.