The Strange Psychology of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP)

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.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy psychology
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy In Psychology

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.

Video by HIP.

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.

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.

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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 became known as the Rosenthal effect and 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.

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.

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.

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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