Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Fundamentals of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Once people believe something to be true, they unknowingly act in ways that make it come true. —Robert Merton
  • A self-fulfilling prophecy is an assumption or prediction that, purely as a result of having been preconceived, causes the expected event to occur and thus confirms the prophecy’s own “accuracy” (Merton, 1948).

Self-fulfilling prophecies occur when our expectations of an event help create the very conditions that allow the event to happen, or when a person acts in ways that confirm another’s expectations.

Used across many contexts, the self-fulfilling prophecy has been used to explain many phenomena.

For example, stereotypes might be explained by the self-fulfilling prophecy when a person holds certain beliefs about a group and then treats persons belonging to the group accordingly, which, in turn, reinforces the initial stereotype.

Similarly, a person’s self-conceptOpens in new window is supported when a person behaves in a way that is in accordance with how the person has conceptualized his or her own self.

Relationship to Law of Attraction

Many social psychologists have considered the relationship between this “prophecy” and the “law of attraction”, how social beliefs become social reality.

It is found that while both the law of attraction and the self-fulfilling prophecy have spiritual and practical implications, the prophecy tends to lean more towards the practical nature of life and the psychological structure of human beings.

For example, if you “believe” that all friendships end with fights, then it becomes inevitable that you will behave accordingly in your relationships.

You will be projecting unconscious signals such as body languageOpens in new window and voice tonesOpens in new window that result in fulfilling that belief (by resulting in a fight within which you will be compelled to end the relationship based upon your preconceived belief).

In this vein, Mark Snyder designed a study in which he observed the way people interacted with people perceived to be attractive and people perceived not to be attractive.

Mark observed that when people perceive someone to be attractive, they tend to act more friendly and engaged with the person, thus giving the other person more opportunity to be engaging in response. According to Snyder, this kind of behavior perpetuates the stereotype that attractive people are more friendly and engaging.

Consistent with these examples, self-fulfilling prophecies are generally described as false beliefs that become true as a result of taking action based on the belief.

Consider another, example, a husband who thinks his wife is “nagging” may withdraw from her to the extent that she actually begins to nag him in order to get his attention.

The point is that even unintentionally, the subconscious aspects of human interaction based upon a belief can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Antecedents of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Three steps are involved in the self-fulfilling prophecy process.

Origin of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The phrase self-fulfilling prophecy was first coined by sociologist Robert Merton. He proposed that self-fulfilling prophecies occur when people’s false beliefs about others become true through social interaction.

One main reason that social psychologists are interested in studying the effects of self-fulfilling prophecies is because of its tendency to contribute to social inequalities. For example, a teacher, biased by racial and ethnic stereotypes, may develop the false belief that a minority student is less capable than the student is in reality.

The teacher may then act on his or her false belief by treating the student as if he or she is not capable. In comparison with other students in the class, the teacher may behave less warmly toward that student, call on that student less often, spend less time with that student, and teach that student less difficult material.

The student may then confirm the teacher’s originally false belief by showing poorer academic performance. By virtue of learning less, the student is now on a course that could have serious consequences. For example, because of the student’s poor performance, he or she may be less likely to be placed into advanced classes, less likely to enter college, and less likely to be hired for a good job.

In this manner people’s biases may start a chain of events that have the potential to undermine the opportunities and competencies of individuals who are the targets of negative expectancies such as women and ethnic and racial minorities.

Through this sequence of events, people have the potential to socially construct reality.