Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Science Behind The Popular Idea

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy psychology

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Meaning

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.

Social psychologist Lee Jussim writes in Encyclopedia Britannica of self-fulfilling prophecy as a process through which an originally false expectation leads to its own confirmation.

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.

Now, does that sound familiar? Wait a bit, and you get to know how scientific the law of attraction is, what are the Greek myths behind self-fulfilling prophecy, and the science of it all. Read on.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy And Placebo Effect

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

What’s 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.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy 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.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy And Positive Thinking

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

It’s Positive Thinking. The forever bestselling book on this was written back in 1952 by Norman Vincent Peale — you can Google that.

What has changed since then of this popular idea?

Nothing! People still believe if you think only positive things, and keep all your attention away from negative emotions and events, good things will surely come to you — automatically, magically.

You sure 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 people don’t want to be around you.

Let’s take it a notch further.

What was the secret behind The Secret, the 2006 book that has sold 30+ million copies?

It tom-tommed the idea of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in a new package, calling it The Law of Attraction. This “metaphysical law” said your thoughts become your reality, so you have to think positive things to attract great things in life. Just think positive, and you’ll attract into your life whatever prizes you want — money, fame, house, whatever.

On the flip side, if you have an accident, a setback, or a disease, it’s your fault. The law of attraction says you drew that misfortune to yourself.

Tell you what, you have to give it to its author and her team it was a brilliant 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.

The Secret took the scientific concept of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and created a marketing blitzkrieg out of it.

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 Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, while removing all its failings.

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.

But that’s not how science works. 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.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Science

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Definition

The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” was coined in 1948 by sociologist Robert K. Merton in his seminal article titled The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The definition he wrote there was:

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

Psychologist Lee Jussim offers one of the best current scientific definition of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:

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

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Science In Romance

First, somewhat heartwarming research on self-fulfilling prophecy — 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 positively 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 evokes a positive effect in a romantic relationship. And a negative expectation brings the negative.

Studies also show beauty could be self-fulfilling too. In an experiment, 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.

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.

Now, the teachers were told the test was the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition,” which would measure the academic “blooming” capacity of the students. In reality, the test had no such predictive power.

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.

However, it wasn’t the truth at all. These students were selected completely at random, with no relation to the test, but the teachers were never told that. Actually, there was no difference between these students and others who were not selected.

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. The teachers expected, and the students delivered. 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 their teachers’ doing.

self-fulfilling prophecy or Pygmalion effect

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

Now, what scientists see in this experiment is different from what hucksters 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 , soon after reviewed the study and criticized it, and wrote it’s findings were worthless.
  3. Scientists keep a sharp eye on what results others get from the same experiment. In 1978, 10 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 the hucksters would conveniently hide the critical facts from you, keep the critiques shut out, and never bother to find out what data came from others. From them you’ll get a straightforward 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 hucksters would want you to believe.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Mythical Origins

Let’s go back in time to trace the origins of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, 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. But beware, it’s not an be-all and end-all of our life.

We can expect good things to happen, and that might increase our chances of a positive outcome. However, the thing to remember is it doesn’t come with a guarantee, as many peddlers of theories as law of attraction would want you to believe.

Do you easily get upset by what other people say? Do you always take everything personally? Then you must take a look at these 4 real-world tips to stop taking things personally.

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

Does science validate the 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 polish self-fulfilling prophecy to perfection?

No. Truthfully, we can’t. It may be that AI-powered androids may do so in future. But not us.

Can science tell us exactly what steps to take, so our self-fulfilling prophecies come true?

No. There are no steps more than one. You only have to expect. And that’s the only step.

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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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