Better Know It All: The Science Of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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When we believe what we predict, a self-fulfilling prophecy is born, and often the prophecy becomes an actual event. Click To Tweet

There are prophecies put forth by oracles, fortune tellers, and soothsayers. Then there is another kind of prophecy that is self-fulfilling: you predict an event or a situation, and your prediction comes true!

Take it from me, it is going to happen!

When you prophesied it, you had no supporting evidence. Still, your prediction came true, as if it were entirely because you said it. But can a prediction manifest itself solely because it was predicted?

It is an interesting phenomenon, and scientists are starting to understand why do some of our wild guesses come true.

The science behind it (believe us, it is not some pseudoscience we’re talking about here) is called self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP). It is when a thing one expects to happen, without any reason, actually happens.

A more interesting question now: Is Self-Fulfilling Prophecy the real psychology behind the Law of Attraction? Or is the law of attraction a hoax? We pick up this intriguing topic from pop culture and put it through scientific scrutiny.

Read on as we dive into the mythology and psychology behind self-fulfilling prophecy and find out how scientific the law of attraction is.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy psychology
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy In Psychology

Mythical Stories Behind Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Before we take up the science part of it, let’s go back in time to trace the origins of self-fulfilling prophecy, into Greek mythology. There are two: 1. Oedipus, and 2, Pygmalion.

1. The Story of Oedipus

Oedipus is the mythological character after whom Sigmund Freud named his Oedipus Complex.

Oedipus was merely a baby when his father Laius, King of Thebes, gave him away to a shepherd. Laius instructed him to take the child into the mountains and leave him there, to die.

Laius had a reason for his cruelty. He had received a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi that his son would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. That diabolical prophecy made him send his son away to death.

The shepherd took the child into the mountains, but could not bring himself to leave him there. He took Oedipus to Polybus, King of Corinth, and told him about his predicament. Polybius adopted the child.

Growing up in the palace, Oedipus came across the Oracle of Delphi’s prophecy one day. He was so disgusted by its darkness that he fled Corinth. Full of shame, he ran into the mountains.

As he wildly made his way across, he came upon a chariot completely blocking his path. In his blind fury, Oedipus attacked them and killed both the charioteer and the rider.

He did not know the man sitting inside was his father, King Laius. He fulfilled the first part of the prophecy.

He moved on and reached the city of Thebes. There, a Sphinx stopped him at the city gates. She explained if anyone wanted to enter the city, they must answer her riddle first. If they gave the wrong answer, she killed them.

Her riddles were so profound, no one could answer them correctly. The Sphinx gave Oedipus this riddle:

What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?

Oedipus thought for a while and answered:

Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then on two legs as an adult, and then with a walking stick when in old age.

Upon hearing this, the Sphinx hurled herself to death, granting freedom to the people of Thebes. As a reward, the citizens offered Oedipus the empty throne. They also give him the hand of the widow-queen, Jocusta.

They marry, with none of them knowing they are the son and the mother. Thus, Oedipus fulfilled the second part of the prophecy.

Long after this, when they discovered the dreadful truth, Jocusta hanged herself. Oedipus gouged out his eyes and left the city forever.

2. The Story of Pygmalion

Ovid, the Roman poet, tells this story in his work Metamorphoses.

Pygmalion, a sculptor from Cypriot, spends days and months carving a statue out of ivory. After finishing, he steps back to look at his creation. The life-like beauty of the figurine makes him stand transfixed for hours.

By the time he regains his senses, he is deeply in love with it. He names it Galatea, meaning “she who is white like milk.”

As his obsession with the statue grows uncontrollable, he runs to and kneels before Goddess Aphrodite, asking her to turn it into a real woman. She understands his maddening love for her and makes Galatea come to life. And they live happily forever.

Pygmalion begins with a belief, and his creation comes to life because of his belief.

In 1913, George Bernard Shaw wrote a romantic stage play on it, named Pygmalion. In the play, a professor of phonetics Henry Higgins was Pygmalion, and the statue was an untutored flower girl from London streets, called Eliza Doolittle. In 1964, the play was adapted into a celebrated movie starring Audrey Hepburn — My Fair Lady.

There’s even a modern prom-themed teen-movie version of Shaw’s Pygmalion: She’s All That.

What Is Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) in Psychology

Self-fulfilling means “brought about as a result of being told in advance,” and prophecy means prediction.

In psychology, a self-fulfilling prophecy is when someone convincingly predicts an event’s outcome and it comes true, even when the prediction was not supported by evidence or explained by logic.

Social psychologist Lee Jussim offers this definition: A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when an originally false social belief leads people to act in ways that objectively confirm that belief.

According to Psychology Research and Reference, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a process through which someone’s expectations about a situation or another person leads to the fulfillment of those expectations.

In a self-fulfilling prophecy, expectancy becomes the cause. So, the expected springs to life because it was expected. It makes little difference if the prediction was made on a baseless belief; the key point is it was firmly believed in.

Self-fulfilling prophecies occur in a wide range of formal (educational, occupational, professional) and informal situations. Social science researchers have demonstrated SFP in both experimental and naturalistic studies.

In psychology and sociology, self-fulfilling prophecy is similar to the concepts of confirmation bias and the placebo effect and has elements of hope theory. In general, one’s thinking affects their behavior. This is called a “schema.” In some cases, however, this schema itself can affect the outcome of the situation, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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According to dictionary.com, “a self-fulfilling prophecy … comes true precisely because someone thought it up and predicted it. Due to their own biases, the predictor may unconsciously take actions that cause the prediction to happen, for better or worse.”

Types

A self-fulfilling prophecy can be of two types:

  1. Self-imposed: a prophecy coming true based on the person’s own prediction.
  2. Other-imposed: a prophecy causing itself to exist based on another’s prediction about the person’s future outcome.

Robert Merton: The Father of Modern Sociology

The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” was coined in 1948 by the sociologist Robert K. Merton in his seminal article titled The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Merton was an American psychologist and criminologist who is widely regarded as a founding father of modern sociology.

The definition of self-fulfilling prophecy Merton wrote in that article was:

A false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.

Robert K. Merton

He explained its purport in a simple sentence: If men define a situation as real, it becomes real in its consequence.

What Merton said was people’s beliefs and ideas – right or wrong – deeply impact the way they think, which then leads them to act in a way that forces the expectations to become a reality.

Merton was the first sociologist to receive a National Medal of Science. Three of his seminal books are Social Theory and Social Structure, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, and On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript.

Merton coined another popular phrase we use today: role model. He wrote extensively on serendipity. Interestingly, he was an amateur magician in his teenage years. Here’s a fine biography of Merton.

The Cycle of Self Fulfilling Prophecy

What is the science behind self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology and sociology? Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) is when one expects something to happen, without any logic or reason, and it finally happens just as predicted.

See the picture below explaining how self-fulfilling prophecy takes place:

self fulfilling prophecy cycle

First, beliefs happen. Second, it sets up expectations based on those beliefs. Third, there begins a series of small changes in behavior that work towards those expectations.

And fourth, the results that come out are in line with those behaviors. Finally, the cycle starts all over again.

Thus, the self-fulfilling prophecy has a circular pattern. Actions toward others make an impact on their beliefs, which then dictates their actions, which thereafter reinforces the original beliefs.

This, in turn, influences the actions towards others, and the cycle is complete and ready to go again in the circular pattern. This pattern can be negative, or it can be positive.

Pygmalion Effect: First Study On SFP

Remember Pygmalion and his ivory statue? Science borrowed from his story.

In 1963, psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson carried out a novel experiment on children at Oak/Spruce School.

They gave the students an IQ test, called the Tests of General Ability (TOGA), at the beginning of their school year. This test was primarily non-verbal and independent of the reading and writing skills learned in school.

First, the teachers were told the test was the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition,” which would measure the academic “blooming” capacity of the students.

Eighteen teachers were told that their students had obtained scores in the top 20% of this test. And these students showed “unusual potential for intellectual growth” as per their scores, and were ready to bloom and realize their potential.

Eight months later, all the students were given the same TOGA test again. What happened was this surprising thing — students who were marked as “ready to bloom” scored significantly higher than those who were not there on the merit list.

However, there were 2 big lies in the experiment.

First, the TOGA test, in reality, had no power to predict academic stardom. But never were the teachers revealed that.

Second, the “top” students were selected completely at random, with no relation to the test results. In fact, there was no difference between these students and others who were not selected.

Still, the students who excelled and outperformed others were the ones whose teachers thought they would do so.

The teachers expected excellence from the marked students based on their beliefs, and the students delivered accordingly. It didn’t matter if these “exceptional” students actually had no extraordinary academic potential than those who were not on the merit list.

The outstanding results of those marked students weren’t the students’ doing; those were the expectations of their teachers’ doing.

The results, as concluded by Rosenthal and Jacobson, showed an observer-expectancy effect. In plain words, it was a powerful show of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The bottom line is that if we expect certain behaviors from people, we treat them differently — and that treatment is likely to affect their behavior. — Robert Rosenthal Click To Tweet

The findings struck gold and became hugely famous. It soon came to be known as the Rosenthal effect, or Pygmalion effect. They later wrote a book about it, Pygmalion In The Classroom.

Here’s a short video explaining the concept:

What is The Pygmalion Effect? (Rosenthal): Example & Definition!
What is The Pygmalion/Rosenthal Effect?

Examples of SFP In Close Relationships

When our expectations influence our subconscious behavior in close or romantic relationships, we’re most probably making a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here are the results of 3 different research studies (and, therefore, great scientific examples) on self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationships involving romance:

▪ In 1996, Murray and colleagues found the more positive the illusion one holds regarding one’s romantic partner, the longer that relationship is likely to continue, and the more positive one’s romantic partner will come to view him or herself.

▪ In 1998, Downey and his team found people who feel anxious that their romantic partners will reject them often get rejected by those partners. In both cases above, we see a positive expectation that evokes a positive effect in a romantic relationship. And a negative expectation brings the negative.

▪ Studies show beauty could be self-fulfilling too. In one study, some men were shown airbrushed and beautified pictures of a woman, leading them to falsely believe she was physically attractive. They were then asked to interview the woman. The men were not only warmer and friendlier to her, but the woman too became warmer and friendlier in response. Remember, the woman was not as attractive as her fake photographs gave the impression of. The men started out with a false belief she was beautiful, but in the end, behaved as if she were more beautiful than she really was.

Read the paper The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Close Relationships by Geraldine Downey, Antonio L. Freitas, Benjamin Michaelis, and Hala Khouri.

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SFP And Placebo Effect

In scientific terms, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a close kin of the placebo effect.

What is a placebo? The American Cancer Society explains it as:

A placebo (pluh-SEE-bow) is a substance or other kind of treatment that looks just like a regular treatment or medicine, but is not.

Placebo use is a standard method used in medical science. Here’s how it happens:

A person is given a pill called a placebo while telling them it will have a certain effect on them. Now the effect could be positive or negative; it doesn’t matter. What happens next is this: the effect comes to manifest.

However, the strangest thing here is the pill had nothing that could have produced the effect. The pill was fantastically empty.

So, a placebo is an inactive “look-alike” substance that is not a medicine.

For example, in an experiment, a researcher gives you a pill and tells you it will cause you a mild headache in a few hours. They ask you to go into a room, sit down, and report back when a headache appears.

Surprisingly, you develop a throbbing headache within an hour. So you go back and tell them you got a headache within 45 minutes, and blame the strength of the pill for it.

Now, the researcher gives you another pill and tells you it will cure your headache. And, no surprise this time, the pill eases you out of your headache. So, you go back and tell them it was a great pill and your pain vanished within 20 minutes.

The researcher carefully notes down the data while thanking you.

Now, if you already haven’t guessed it, the reality was this: Both the pills were exactly the same.

And surprisingly, neither of them contained any drug. Not even the smallest bit. Both were just sugar pills.

But each had the effect it was told will have. And that’s your placebo.

But why do the researchers play such tricks?!

Well, this is why: While you were in a room after having the empty pill, others in another room were given the real pill, but weren’t told how it would affect them. Finally, the researchers compared the data from both rooms and reached a decision about how much effect the drug really had.


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In a way, self-fulfilling prophecy is something similar; it’s the placebo of the masses.

SFP And Hope Theory

Self-fulfilling prophecy has a built-in heart of hope.

And hope is a desire with an expectation for something, especially something good. It’s a wish laden with belief in the possibility something good is going to happen.

In psychology, however, hope isn’t just wishful thinking. What Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneering positive psychologist and author of Positivity, says about hope is this:

Hope is not the typical form of positivity that we know of; rather, it comes into play when our circumstances are dire… when fear, hopelessness or despair seem just as likely.

Shane Lopez, the world’s foremost researcher on hope and author of Making Hope Happen, lays down the basic principles of hope. He says when you hope, you start with these 4 beliefs:

  1. The future will be better than the present
  2. You have the power to make it so
  3. There are many paths to your goals
  4. None of them is free of obstacles

The “Big Daddy” of hope, the late Charles “Rick” Snyder, the M. Erik Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas, and author of Handbook of Hope, developed the Hope Theory. Accordingly, hope has 3 components:

  1. Goals — finding realistic and meaningful goals
  2. Pathways — finding ways to fulfill your goals
  3. Agency — finding determination to change yourself, overcome the obstacles in the path, and achieve your goals

You must have heard and read the popular saying:

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

What Prof Snyder did was redefine it in a scientific way. What he meant was, from a point of psychology, to hope successfully, you need to have both the agency and the pathway to go after your desired goals.

Snyder’s experiments showed people with high hopes tolerate pain almost twice as long as those with low levels of hope.

Hope increases our ability to tolerate pain. Our expectancy shapes our experience of pain. Click To Tweet

By the way, did you know there are differences between Hope and Optimism?

SFP And Confirmation Bias

Let’s find out why self-fulfilling prophecy originates from a cognitive error: confirmation bias.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary defines confirmation bias as a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.

When you start out with an idea and absorb every small bit of proof that supports your belief, while rejecting everything that points at the holes in your idea, it’s called confirmation bias in psychology.

Confirmation or confirmatory bias is the human tendency to soak up pieces of evidence that favor your existing belief while ignoring those that challenge it – regardless of the truth of those preconceptions.

It’s a widespread phenomenon in the business and startup world. We know of so many story examples where people start a new business and keep pouring excessive amounts of time and money into it.

Because a few random signals tell them it will succeed while ignoring all the big indications about its failing. In the end, however, the idea and business fail.

An example of confirmation bias is when someone believes they are having a bad day. Then, instead of noticing the many things that go well during the day, they pay all their attention to a couple of things that go wrong. At the end of the day, with these one or two out-of-place things, they confirm their day was indeed bad.

Coulacoglou and Saklofske in their book Psychometrics and Psychological Assessment write that confirmatory bias is similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy. They say we all seek evidence that validates our previously held beliefs and values and undermine those that contradict our expectations.

This one-sided judgment of an event based on proof to support a preconceived idea is what resembles the self-fulfilling prophecy.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is similar to confirmation bias.

Self Fulfilling Prophecy And Law of Attraction (LoA)

That brings us to an overblown pop-culture idea peddled as science for the last 70 years: the Law of Attraction.

You just have to scratch the surface of this popular idea with a small bit of scientific rigor, and you’ll find out it is not authentic science, but pseudoscience.

Starting out as the Positive Thinking movement, it was firmly placed in the public imagination with a bestselling book with those words, written back in 1952. What has changed since then of this popular idea?

Almost nothing. Just ask around and you’ll see it has not changed.

People still believe that if you think only positive things—and keep all your attention away from negative emotions and events—good things will come to you automatically and magically.

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You must have come across this in many forms on your social media. A recent one this author came across was this:

Be so positive that negative feelings don’t want to hang around you.

But the truth is, as psychological science has proven, again and again, our negative emotions have a survival purpose.

There’s this great book on the usefulness of our negative emotions by two of the most famous positive psychologists, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener: The Power of Negative Emotion.

Let’s take it a notch down, now. What was the secret behind Teh Scerte (re-arrange the letters to decode the famous 2006 book that has sold 30+ million copies)?

Here’s a hint: Mark Manson wrote an entire article about that book.

The book tom-tommed the idea of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) in a new package, calling it the Law of Attraction (LoA). This “metaphysical law” said your thoughts become your reality.

So, if you want good things in life, you have to think only positive things to attract those great things in life. And those things will surely come to you in time.

New-age believers openly refer to the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy as the Law of Attraction. This is their major money-spinning mantra.

Just remember, LoA warns you, no negative thinking ever if you want the good things in your life. If you think positively, you’ll attract into your life whatever prizes you want — money, fame, house, whatever.

But all along, you have to be sharply aware of negative thoughts arising in your mind, and throw them out immediately.

On the flip side, and this is the real bad side of it. If you have an accident, a setback, or a disease, it’s your fault. The law of attraction says you lured that misfortune to yourself. With your negative thinking, you attracted the bad things.

To top it all, she said the entire universe is conspiring to give you what you want – through your positive or negative thoughts. Because, she laid out, all the matter and energy in the universe are emitting frequencies. And the frequency of your thoughts will attract matter and energy of similar frequency to you.

She even called in the ghosts of Shakespeare, Edison, and Abraham Lincoln to side with her on this.

Tell you what, you have to give it to its author and her team, they devised a brilliant way to market the idea. She called it the secret of the universe and assured millions around the globe its principles are based on quantum mechanics. Whoa!

[Since we’re at it, here’s a great scientific, beginner’s level, book on quantum physics: How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog].

The truth is, The Secret took the scientific concept of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) and created a marketing blitzkrieg out of it.

1. Scientific Fallacy: What’s Wrong With The LoA

Is The Law of Attraction a hoax, a con-trick? There is definitely something wrong here, as you might have guessed.

It did not tell its believers there were some results that did not confirm the idea. What the book did was go to the masses with some shoddy anecdotal evidence that supported the core idea of self-fulfilling prophecy, while removing all its failings.

It meticulously pushed all the data percentages under the carpet that didn’t fit the idea. They went to town claiming it worked like magic because famous people used it in their lives to rise to success and stardom, and the popular imagination fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

That’s not how science works, as that book wants you to believe. That’s not how scientists want their findings to be popularized. They want the people to see the true picture — warts and all, not some photo-shopped glamorous version of their research.

2. Three Unique Qualities of Scientists

What the scientists see in the Rosenthal experiment is different from what promoters of the Law of Attraction (LoA) see. Because scientists have these unique qualities:

  1. Scientists accept limitations and failures. Rosenthal and Jacobson didn’t hide the fact that the Pygmalion effect was seen only in the youngest children — first and second graders, not in the older third and fourth graders.
  2. Scientists always stay open to critiques. Robert Thorndike, an expert in educational and psychological testing, reviewed the study soon after it came out, and criticized it. He even wrote its findings were worthless.
  3. Scientists keep a sharp eye on what results the other researchers get from the same experiment. In 1978, ten years after the study’s publication, Rosenthal and Rubin co-authored a report based on 345 experiments involving the influence of interpersonal expectations. They concluded, “The reality of the phenomenon is beyond doubt.” The critics eventually quietened, and the Pygmalion Effect became something like an article of faith.

But like any huckster, the LoA advocates conveniently hide critical facts from you, keep the critiques shut, and never bother to find out what non-supportive data came from others.

From the ardent LoA advocates, you’ll get something like this:

Expect excellence from your children and you are going to get it.

So you see the problem there. The science of human behavior doesn’t work in absolutes, as the LoA ‘believers’ want you to believe.

Final words

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is a useful and helpful concept in psychology. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains self-fulfilling prophecy as a process through which an originally false expectation leads to its own confirmation.

We can expect good things to happen, and that might increase our chances of a positive outcome. However, the thing to remember is it’s never the be-all and end-all of our life. A self-fulfilling prophecy does not come with a guarantee, despite what the peddlers of the Law of Attraction would want you to believe.

FAQs

  • Does science prove the validity of self-fulfilling prophecy?

    Yes, it does. But know this, it’s never a 100 percent yes. It does have some noticeable effect, but not every time, not in every situation, and not with everyone.

  • Can we use science to make SFP work perfectly?

    We can’t. Truthfully, we can’t see what the future holds unless we invent time travel. AI-powered androids may do so in the future. But not us.

  • What are the steps to make self-fulfilling prophecies come true?

    Only one step. There is no more than one. And that step is you just have to have an expectation. How your future unfolds thereafter is anybody’s guess.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


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