Definition: “A self-fulfilling prophecy is an assumption or prediction that, purely as a result of being made, causes the expected or predicted event to occur and thus confirms its own ‘accuracy.’”1 In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction, assumption, or expectation which becomes reality because people believe it will become reality.
This is a social-psychology concept that is profoundly important. I will reference it again and again in this blog. I employ it while working as an academic coach, and I regularly use it in my own life. Because they’re so significant, I’ve dedicated this post to explaining what self-fulfilling prophecies are, how they work, and how you can use them in your life. Furthermore, “by becoming aware of self-fulfilling prophecies, we will be better able to recognize and resist potentially damaging outcomes” that can result from them.2
Let me give you an example. In 1979 California newspapers predicted a serious gasoline shortage. Californians responded by rushing out to fill their gas tanks, greatly increasing the short-term demand for gas, causing the shortage to become a reality. “After the excitement died down, it turned out that the allotment of gasoline to the state of California had hardly been reduced at all.”1 The same thing happened at the outset of the Great Depression when a rumor spread that the banks didn’t have enough money to pay back everyone’s deposits. Everyone ran to the banks to withdraw their savings, and since the banks had lent much of that money to borrowers, they had insufficient funds.
Certainly not every belief or prediction comes true simply because people believe in it. It must be a prediction about the future which has an impact on how people behave in the present. Prophecies are only self-fulfilling if the belief in them causes people to act in such a way that makes the prediction come true.
Such a prediction, once made, can really alter the future. This is because “an action that results from a self-fulfilling prophecy itself produces the requisite conditions for the occurrence of the expected event, and in this sense creates a reality which would not have arisen without it.”1
In many cases, self-fulfilling prophecies are feedback loops:
The beliefs that underlie self-fulfilling prophecies don’t have to be true; they merely have to predict outcomes which are possible. “Often what is important is not what is factually correct, but rather what is defined as real. People’s actions are based on their definitions of what is real. That is, we respond not to the direct event but to our interpretation of it.”2 Sometimes “an assumption believed to be true creates an assumed reality, and … it is irrelevant whether the assumption was originally true or false.”1
We need to be aware of the power of self-fulfilling prophecies because “certain definitions of the situation either enable or inhibit possible lines of action.”2 We can, through our beliefs, give ourselves greater power and freedom, or conversely, put ourselves in shackles. False beliefs often needlessly hold us back, while other times a dose of seemingly irrational optimism can help us succeed.
The placebo effect is a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. When we believe we’re taking medicine, it’s often helpful even if it’s not actually medicine. You probably already know that. But did you know that placebos work better if they’re more expensive? That’s because we believe expensive medicine is more effective.3
The placebo effect is so powerful that it can even overpower the actual effects of drugs that work. Several experiments have shown this. In some, people were given stimulants but told they were depressants, and they reacted to the drugs as though they were depressants. The same thing happened when they were given depressants and told they were stimulants. In one study, people with nausea were given a drug that causes vomiting, but they were told that it was an anti-nausea medicine, and their nausea improved.3
It gets even weirder:
“Japanese researchers blindfolded a group of students and told them their right arms were being rubbed with a poison ivy plant. Afterward, all 13 of the students’ arms reacted with the classic symptoms of poison ivy: itching, boils, and redness. Not surprising … Until you find out that the plant used for the study wasn’t poison ivy at all, just a harmless shrub. The students’ beliefs were actually strong enough to create the biological effects of poison ivy, even though no such plant had touched them. Then, on the students’ other arm, the researchers rubbed actual poison ivy, but told them it was a harmless plant. Even though all 13 students were highly allergic, only two of them broke out into the poison ivy rash!”4
All of this shows just how powerful the mind’s expectations can be. Let’s look at some non-medical examples, and then consider academic applications of self-fulfilling prophecies.
“Imagine a married couple struggling with a conflict that they both assume to be basically the other’s fault, while their own behavior is seen only as a reaction to that of their partner. The woman complains that her husband is withdrawing from her, which he admits, but because he sees his silence or leaving the room as the only possible reaction to her constant nagging and criticizing. For her this reasoning is a total distortion of the facts: His behavior is the cause of her criticism and her anger. … the behavior pattern between the two people has been repeating itself for a long time, and the question of who started it has long since become meaningless.”1
Sometimes people unwittingly use self-fulfilling prophecies to their own detriment. “For example, if someone assumes, for whatever reason, that he is not respected, he will, because of this assumption, act in such a hostile, overly sensitive, suspicious manner that he brings about that very contempt in others which ‘proves’ again and again his firmly entrenched conviction.”1
Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar likes to say, “You are a co-creator of your reality.”3 These two examples demonstrate that quite nicely. Your actual circumstances matter, of course, but your interpretation of those circumstances matters as well, and in many cases is more important. This is really empowering. We can’t always control life, but we can control how we react to it,5 and we can improve our social interactions simply by improving our assumptions about other people.
In Congress, both political parties are currently operating under the assumption that the other party will not cooperate in a bi-partisan manner, and so both behave towards the other with distrust and vitriol, causing the assumption to be proven correct. Were they to both assume cooperation would occur, they would behave much more amiably, greatly increasing the odds of actual cooperation.
When we believe someone is “friendly and likeable,” we “actually behave in ways that encourage such individuals to respond in a friendly and likeable manner. The reverse is also true.”2 If we have negative assumptions about a person, we’re likely to have a bad attitude when we interact with that person, which often causes that person to reciprocate our bad attitude, “proving” our negative assumptions right.
Hence, we bear a lot of responsibility for the demeanor of people we interact with.
The Power of Expectations
“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
For our purposes, the most important type of self-fulfilling prophecies are those which predict academic outcomes.
In the 1960’s researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted a now-famous study called “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” They “told elementary school teachers that they had administered a test indicating that a number of the students in the teachers’ classes were likely to show significant academic improvement over the course of the year. In fact, the researchers had simply picked a group of students randomly. However, by the end of the year students who were expected by their teachers to improve had indeed improved.”2 It seems that the expectations a teacher has about a student affects how the teacher behaves toward the student, changing that student’s performance.
In the decades that followed, researchers tested this phenomenon in a variety of ways.6 Here are the most significant findings:
- Expectations do have a significant effect on student performance.6
- Young children are affected more by expectations than older children.6
- Low expectations cause more hindrance than high expectations cause improvement.6
- The best way to express high expectations is by setting goals that establish a minimum-expected achievement, and then letting all students know that they can achieve at least that much.6
- Don’t express any expectations about upper-limits or achievement-ceilings.6
For parents, this means that having high expectations of your child’s ability to improve makes that improvement more likely. It also means that expressing low expectations can be very detrimental. It’s reassuring to know that the scientific research on student achievement confirms that parents should provide warm, supportive encouragement, and be persistent in expressing the belief that your child will improve.
None of this is to encourage you to have unrealistically high expectations for your child. If you tell a child that you’re sure he’ll get straight A’s and he doesn’t, you’ve set him up for disappointment and confusion. Likewise, if your child fails to live up to your high expectations (for academics, at least), they should be treated with compassion and given more encouragement, not punished or made to feel inadequate.
Racist and sexist stereotypes are also a form of expectations than can be self-fulfilling prophecies. For instance, if girls are told, before a math exam, that boys usually do better on math tests, then the girls will do worse (on average). But if they’re told nothing, then they do just as well as the boys! Expressions of this sexist stereotype also make girls more likely to give up on math, rather than persist when it gets difficult.7
“We will act consistently with our views of who we truly are, whether that view is accurate or not.” –Tony Robbins8
One of the most classic examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the Roger Bannister story. Bannister was the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Before he did it, everyone thought it was impossible; everyone, except for Roger Bannister. He was sure that he would do it, and boldly said so in public. He was laughed at. Scientists were saying that they’d proven it was impossible. But he worked very hard and on May 6th, 1954, he proved them all wrong. It’s an inspiring story of how a person’s beliefs about what he’s capable of can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that’s not the true lesson of Bannister’s story. Top athletes had been trying to break the 4-minute barrier for decades, with no success. But once Bannister showed the world it was possible, runners suddenly found it within themselves to run faster. His record lasted only 46 days.3
What you believe about your own abilities is more important than what others believe. Do you think you’re a resilient person? Do you think you’re a lazy person? Do you see yourself as an active agent in your life, or as a passive victim?3 Your answers to these questions matter a lot.
Your child’s answers to these questions matter a lot, too. And your child might be learning how to answer them by watching you, so it’s important to model positive personal expectations.
Am I talking about self-esteem? Sort of. A better term is self-efficacy, which is the belief in your own ability to handle challenges – the belief that you are an effective person. It is a deep form of confidence that drives success in all areas of life, including academics.3
Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura said: “People who regard themselves as highly efficacious act, think, and feel differently from those who perceive themselves as inefficacious. They produce their own future, rather than simply foretell it.” They write their own story. They handle hardship and difficulties better. They are more resilient. They have more motivation.3
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this trait:
“People high in self-efficacy stay committed to solving their problems and don’t give up when they find that their original solution doesn’t work. They are more likely than people who doubt their ability to cope to try new ways to solve a problem, persisting until they find a workable answer. And, by solving problems, their confidence is enhanced, which in turn increases the likelihood that they will persevere even longer the next time they are faced with a challenge. In contrast, people who don’t believe they have the ability to bring about good things in their lives are more passive when faced with a problem or when placed in a new situation. They shy away from new experiences – taking on a new hobby, applying for a new job, joining a social group – because they assume that they are unequipped to meet the challenges that the new situation will bring. When a problem arises at work or in the family … they hang back and rely on others to search for solutions. If they are forced to solve a problem themselves, their lack of confidence causes them to give up at the first sign of difficulty. This too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each time they give up or fail to solve a problem, the belief that they cannot handle the pressures of life is reinforced and their self-doubt increases.”9
Self-efficacy is both a cause and a consequence of success. The same is true for low-confidence and failure. The trait and the outcome are linked in a feedback loop, which can be either a virtuous cycle or a downward spiral:
Raising Kids With Self-Efficacy
The good news is that confidence and self-efficacy can be learned and cultivated over time. It takes effort, but it can be done. It is done with specific strategies and actions. You can teach these strategies to your children, and you can model them so they’ll follow your example.
Self-efficacy is not developed through positive thinking:
“The worst possible way to build someone’s self-efficacy is to pump them up with you-can-do-it platitudes. At best, putative self-esteem-enhancing slogans and motivational talks do nothing. At worst, they actually further undermine resilience and effective coping. Why? Because self-esteem is the by-product of doing well in life – meeting challenges, solving problems, struggling and not giving up. You will feel good about yourself when you do well in the world. That is healthy self-esteem. Many people and many programs, however, try to bolster self-esteem directly by encouraging us to chant cheery phrases, to praise ourselves strongly and often, and to believe that we can do anything we want to in life. The fatal flaw with this approach is that it is simply not true. We cannot do anything we want to in life, regardless of the number of times we tell ourselves how special and wonderful we are and regardless of how determined we are to make it.”9
Rather, self-efficacy is developed by taking positive action:
“We know that as people start to build a track record of small successes by solving problems, self-efficacy follows naturally. Building self-efficacy is more difficult and time-consuming than pumping up your self-esteem.” What actually works is learning “the tools to solve the problems in your life and to meet the challenges that confront you,” and then applying them.9 Taking even a single step in the right direction can kick-start a positive feedback loop that leads to greater self-efficacy, greater motivation, and greater progress. One of the best ways to help your children is to teach them how this works, and then frequently remind them that positive action is the way to feel good about themselves.
Now, I said that positive thinking isn’t the answer, but this isn’t to say that negative thinking is helpful. It’s often even more harmful. We should believe positive things about ourselves, to the extent that they are reasonable and realistic. We should avoid thinking negative things about ourselves, unless those negative judgments are firmly grounded in reality and we’re committed to improving ourselves. Very often, people believe negative things about themselves which simply aren’t true. These are known as limiting beliefs. These are invisible shackles that we place on ourselves.
For parents, there are a few lessons from this. One is to model realistic self-assessment. Work on correcting your own limiting beliefs. Another is to listen to what your children say about themselves, and guide them toward more helpful self-assessments. If your child has a poor self-image that isn’t grounded in reality, actively correct them. Use logic and evidence to convince them that they’re capable individuals, because that is how they’ll need to convince themselves when they’re on their own.
Lastly, your child’s sense of self-efficacy is partly derived from how you judge them. This means that you should avoid assigning negative character labels to your children. Criticize and correct their behavior when needed, of course, but try to avoid criticizing their character. It’s important for your children to believe they have good characteristics, because it will make them want to live up to those characteristics. Conversely, if you assign negative character traits to your children, they might just prove you right. We tend to live up the labels we’re given.
One of the most detrimental things we can do is tell kids they have learning disabilities. That’s why we prefer to describe these issues as learning differences. Tony Robbins explains this better than I can:
“If you feel certain that you are ‘learning-disabled,’ it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is quite different from believing that your current strategy for learning is ineffective. The ability to change one’s strategy is perceived by most of us to be a simple and achievable task, as long as we have the right teacher. However, changing ourselves – changing the essence of who we are – is perceived by most to be next to impossible.”8
Furthermore, the “disability” label affects how teachers interact with children in such a way that hurts the child’s academic performance.10 Remember, low expectations cause more hindrance than high expectations cause improvement.6
An important caveat is that labeling kids as “smart,” or “gifted” can be surprisingly harmful. This hurts kids because they come to think that their ability to handle schoolwork is based on innate intelligence, rather than hard work. When things get difficult, and they can’t figure out a problem, they’ll believe that it’s because they’re not smart enough. If, however, kids are praised for their hard work – for their efforts – then they’ll know that persistence is what is rewarded. And when things get difficult, they’ll keep trying, knowing that they can succeed through effort.11
By now I hope you’ve seen how self-fulfilling prophecies are important, and how understanding them can be helpful. Being realistic is always important, but erring on the side of optimism is usually better than being overly pessimistic. Predict good things and have high expectations, unless it is harmful or dangerous to do so.
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.
1 Watzlawick, Paul. “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.” Jodi O’Brien and Peter Kollock. The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings on Social Interaction. Third Edition. Pine Forge Press, 2001.
2 O’Brien, Jodi, and Peter Kollock. The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings on Social Interaction. Third Edition. Pine Forge Press, 2001.
3 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
4 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.
5 Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, paraphrased lyric from “Vipasanna.” The VS. Redux. 2010.
6 Cotton, Kathleen. “Expectations and Student Outcomes.” School Improvement Research Series. November 1989. http://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/expectations-and-student-outcomes.pdf.
7 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.
8 Robbins, Anthony. Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! Free Press, 1992.
9 Reivich, Karen and Andrew Shatte. The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Harmony, 2003.
10 Shifrer, Dara. “Stigma of a Label: Educational Expectations for High School Students Labeled with Learning Disabilities.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. American Sociological Association. December 4, 2013. http://hsb.sagepub.com/content/54/4/462.full.pdf+html.
11 Mueller, Claudia M., and Carol S. Dweck. “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 75, No. 1. American Psychological Association, 1998. http://web.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/system/files/Intelligence%20Praise%20Can%20Undermine%20Motivation%20and%20Performance.pdf.
Title Image: McGrath, Sean. “The Wizard.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 4.0. Image trimmed from original, text added.
Feedback Loops: Loper, Chris. 2015.