What’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, The Psychology Behind LoA?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy psychology

“Take it from me, that is the only thing that’s going to happen!” Have you ever predicted something based on an intuition or a wild guess? And it turned out to be true?

It may have been an outcome in your life or someone else’s, but in either case you had no solid evidence when you made the speculation. Still, your words came true, as if it came true because you had predicted it.

And that is your self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, doesn’t that sound too familiar? Wait a bit, and you get to know the myth and psychology behind self-fulfilling prophecy, and how scientific the law of attraction is.

Read on.

Definition, Meaning, And Merton

What is self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology and sociology?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is when you predict an event’s outcome to be a result you firmly believe in, and the prediction comes true. You start with a false belief, but in the end it turns out to be true.

In simple words, self-fulfilling prophecy is when a thing you firmly believe in to happen, with no reason or proof, finally happens.

In psychology, it’s similar to confirmation bias and the placebo effect, and has elements of hope theory.

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

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

He explained its purport in a simple sentence:

If men define a situation as real, it becomes real in its consequence.

Social psychologist Lee Jussim offers one of the best current scientific definitions of the concept:

A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when an originally false social belief leads people to act in ways that objectively confirm that belief.

Self-fulfilling means “brought about as a result of being told in advance,” and “prophecy” means prediction. Remember, it doesn’t beg any solid evidence to start with, just a strong belief it will happen. And it happens.

The Psychology of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP)

What is science behind self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology and sociology?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) is when you expect something to happen, without any logic or reason, and it finally happens. It’s similar to the confirmation bias and placebo effect in psychology, and has elements of hope theory.

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

self-fulfilling prophecy or Pygmalion effect
Self-fulfilling prophecy (infographic)
  • 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.
  • Fourth, the results that come out are in line with those behaviors.
  • Finally, however, it doesn’t end there. The cycle starts all over again.

First Study On SFP: The Pygmalion Effect

Going back, 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 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 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.

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

However, there were two big lies in that 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. Actually, there was no difference between these students and others who were not selected.

The teachers expected excellence based on their beliefs, and the students delivered accordingly. It didn’t matter these students had no exceptional academic potential than others who were not on the merit list. It wasn’t the students’ doing; it was actually their teachers’ doing.

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

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

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

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

  1. 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 positively one’s romantic partner will come to view him or herself.
  2. 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 evokes a positive effect in a romantic relationship. And a negative expectation brings the negative.
  3. Studies show beauty could be self-fulfilling too. In a study, some men were shown airbrushed, 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.

SFP And Placebo Effect

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

What’s a placebo effect?

It’s a standard method used in medical science. A person is given a pill, called placebo, while telling them it will have a certain effect on them. Now the effect could be positive or negative; it doesn’t matter. Next, what happens 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.

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.

Why do the researchers play such tricks?

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

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

SFP And Hope Theory

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. According to it, 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 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 who have high hopes tolerate pain almost twice as longer as those with low levels of hope.

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

Self-fulfilling prophecy has an inbuilt heart of hope.

SFP And Confirmation Bias

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 of making you 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 quite a widespread happening 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 fails.

The Skeptics 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.

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 on 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 a bad day.

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

This one-sided judgment of an event based on proofs to support a preconceived idea is what resembles the SFP.

Self-fulfilling prophecy is similar to confirmation bias.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy And Law of Attraction

That brings us to an overblown idea that has been peddled as science for the last 70 years. You have to scratch the surface of this popular idea with a small bit of scientific rigor, and you’ll find out it’s not authentic science, but pseudoscience.

Starting out as Positive Thinking movement, it was firmly placed in public imagination with a bestselling book with those words, written back in 1952 — you can Google that.

What has changed since then of this popular idea?

Almost nothing. People still believe 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. 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 this by two of the most famous positive psychologists, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener: The Power of Negative Emotion or The Upside of Your Dark Side.

Let’s take it a notch down.

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.

That 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 be surely come to you in time.

Just remember, it warned, no negative thinking ever if you want the good things in your life. If you think positive, 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 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.

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 in quantum mechanics. (Since we’re at it, here’s an insightful, scientific, beginner’s level book on it: How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog).

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

Actually, the book took the scientific concept of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP) and created a marketing blitzkrieg out of it.

The Scientific Fallacy of Law of Attraction

There was definitely something wrong there, as you might have guessed. What the book did was go to the masses with some shoddy anecdotal evidence that supported the core idea of SFP, while removing all its failings. It did not tell its believers there were some results that did not confirm the idea.

It meticulously pushed under the carpet all the data percentages 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.

For example, what the scientists see in the Rosenthal experiment is different from what promoters of Law of Attraction (LoA) see.

  1. Scientists accept limitations and failures. Rosenthal and Jacobson didn’t hide the fact 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. In fact, 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 others 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 would conveniently hide the critical facts from you, keep the critiques shut out, and never bother to find out what non-supportive data came from others. From them, you’ll get something like this:

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

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

Mythical Origins of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Let’s go back in time to trace the origins of SFP, in Greek mythology. There are two: Pygmalion and Oedipus.

The Story of Pygmalion

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

Pygmalion, a Cypriot sculptor, creates an statue out of ivory. Soon after he finishes carving it, he finds the statue so beautiful and realistic that he falls in love with it.

He names it Galatea, meaning “she who is white like milk.” He becomes so obsessed that he asks Goddess Aphrodite to turn it into a real woman, which she does. And they live happily forever.

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

The Story of Oedipus

Oedipus was just a baby when his father Laius, King of Thebes, gives him away to a shepherd to take him to the mountains and leave him to die there. Laius had received a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi that his son would kill his father and marry his mother. So he sends his son away to death.

But Oedipus was saved and adopted by Polybus, King of Corinth.

Growing up, when he learns about Delphi’s prophecy, he flees Corinth out of disgust. On a narrow mountain way, he comes across a chariot that wouldn’t let him pass. Oedipus kills both the charioteer and the man inside, without any knowledge he was killing his own father, Laius.

When he reaches the city of Thebes, he’s stopped at the gate by the Sphinx and asked this riddle: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?”

Oedipus answers her riddle: “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.”

At this, the Sphinx hurls herself to death, and the city is freed. As a reward, he is offered the empty throne, and the hand of Jocusta. Again, he has no idea he has married the widow-queen, his own mother.

Thus, the prophecy comes true.

Long after this, when they discover the dreadful truth, Jocusta hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges out his eyes and leaves the city forever.

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 a be-all and end-all of our life. SFP does not come with a guarantee, despite what the peddlers Law of Attraction would want you to believe.

Now, let’s end this by answering a few questions:

Q1. Does science validate the self-fulfilling prophecy?
A1. 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.

Q2. How can we use science to polish SFP to perfection?
A2. We can’t. Truthfully, we can’t see what the future holds unless we invent time travel. It may be the AI-powered androids may do so in future. But not us.

Q3. Can science lay down the exact steps to take to make our SFPs come true?
A3. No. There are no steps more than one. And that step is you only have an expectation. How your future unfolds thereafter is anybody’s guess.

[Do you easily get upset by what people say? Take a peek at the 4 real-world tips to stop taking things personally.]

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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.


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