If you are into Greek mythology, you probably have heard the story of Oedipus. This tale, which became one of the best examples of self-fulling prophecy, shows how Oedipus and his father, Laius, unconsciously (or maybe consciously?) manifested their fate. Like the Oedipus tale, we may have self-prophesied our destiny in several aspects of our lives, whether positive or negative.
For instance, have you ever foreseen something that eventually happened to you? You’re not alone. Self-fulfilling prophecies are so ingrained in our psychology and social environment that we often don’t even notice how they can affect our everyday encounters.
But what is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and how did it come about?
What Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person's belief generates a conscious or unconscious behavior that makes their thoughts come true.
It works like a vicious cycle. You hold a belief about other people and yourself, which affects your actions concerning them or yourself. For others, the assumptions affect how you act toward them, thus influencing their views about you. If you hold expectations about yourself, this affects your actions, creating behavior that validates your assumptions.
Robert Merton created the term in the mid-20th century after several studies on the sociological aspect of self-fulling prophecy.
Based on his research, the sociologist believed that flawed social beliefs impact people’s behaviors – so much so that lies become a reality. Because people act in ways that support others’ assumptions, false premises behind self-fulfilling prophecies can create destructive social issues - not to mention, they may also bring about psychological effects such as low self-esteem, depression, etc.
Types of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
For a long time, self-fulfilling prophecies have grabbed the attention of sociology and psychology researchers, who want to understand how they impact human behavior.
These prophecies consider intrapersonal and interpersonal mechanisms. For intrapersonal mechanisms, your beliefs or expectations impact your own actions, while for interpersonal mechanisms, others’ views impact your thoughts and behaviors. And they align with what Ronald B. Adler and a team of communication professors recognized as two types of self-fulfilling prophecies: “self-imposed and “other-imposed.”
As the name suggests, self-imposed prophecies are the product of the person’s own expectations, while other-imposed prophecies are based on other people’s assumptions. Though we may not even realize it, both influence our activities regularly, whether at home, school, or work. And this is what the following examples of self-fulling prophecies illustrate.
Examples of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The history of self-fulfilling prophecies wouldn't be complete without the story of Oedipus. Though fictitious, it might be the most recognizable example of other-imposed self-fulling prophecy.
When Laius, king of Thebes, learned that Oedipus would kill him, he abandoned his son. Oedipus' foster parents reared him until the day Oedipus was told that he would eventually kill his father and tie the knot with his mother. Unaware that his foster parents weren't his birth parents, Oedipus ran away from home to Thebes to avoid this tragedy. There, he fought with a stranger, killing him. Oedipus married the stranger's wife, later discovering that the dead man was his biological father and his new wife was his birth mother.
The story of Oedipus shows that when the beliefs of others influence your thoughts, it makes you take action that eventually helps the assumption become a reality.
So, what happens when teachers create expectations about students? Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated a unique type of other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecy with their 1965 experiment with children in the classroom: the Pygmalion effect.
The researchers told teachers that some of their students were part of the “growth spurts” group based on their IQ tests. (In other words, that group of children had a high intellectual potential.) Later, they retested the students and collected data from both “ordinary” and “growth-spurts” students, discovering that the “growth-spurts” showed a much better performance than the “ordinary” ones.
But this was not all. The duo also found that teachers put in more effort to engage with and develop the “growth spurts” – even though they didn’t know that students were randomly chosen.
This study illustrated how teachers' expectations influenced the students' behavior and reiterated the researchers' theory. The high-score students were the ones who the teachers held higher hopes – and therefore provided more support – while the "ordinary" ones were, in some ways, neglected.
In other words, the Pygmalion effect shows that when you create expectations about people, you will likely treat them based on those expectations. This may influence the person’s behavior, who acts according to that expectation, becoming a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The placebo effect is a classic example of a self-imposed prophecy. It also has been helpful to understand the psychology behind self-fulfilling prophecies, as psychologists have seen evidence that our expectations and beliefs play a role in several outcomes in our mind.
The placebo effect relates to when a person shows an effective outcome to an inactive treatment. The individual participating in clinical trials doesn’t know if they're taking the actual medication or the placebo. The placebo is an inactive substance, such as sugar pills or saline injections; however, there have been cases in which participants who have taken the placebo showed positive outcomes.
While researchers are still searching for the exact mechanisms of the placebo, they believe the person’s thoughts and beliefs play a big part in the results.
Other Everyday Examples
Bank failure: When rumors run far and wide that a bank will default on their obligations, people start to panic and rush to remove money from their accounts. Even though there may not be any clear indication the bank will become insolvent, it may collapse because it can't handle the abrupt, high-demand deposit withdrawals. In the end, an initial false assumption turns into reality.
Poor interviewing: When interviewing for the job of your dreams, you might be excited but also nervous about the questions the interviewer will ask. Perhaps you are doubting how well prepared you are, or if you learned enough about the company. During the interview, the jitters get the best of you; you start overthinking and over-explaining irrelevant details from your previous position. A few days later, you learn that the employer found another candidate better suited for the job. Your false beliefs contributed to you acting in ways that led you to lose the job opportunity.
Marathon disappointment: Running a full marathon has always been on your bucket list, and you have been training for this moment for a while. You work out regularly and run 5Ks here and there. You even ran a half-marathon. But although you feel good about running short-distance events, you are still insecure about your ability to run a full marathon. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, you buy a new pair of sneakers to ensure a better performance. On the day of the marathon, everything starts smoothly. But halfway through the route, the blisters on your feet become a burden. Your feet hurt so much that you have to stop running, and have to finish the course walking.
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