A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief or expectation that an individual holds about a future event that manifests because the individual holds it.
For example, if you wake up and immediately think that today is going to be a terrible day, your attitude might make your prediction come true. You may unconsciously work to affirm your belief by ignoring the positive, amplifying the negative, and behaving in ways that are unlikely to contribute to an enjoyable day.
One of the classic examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy comes from the Greek mythology of Oedipus. Oedipus’s father Laius is warned that his son will eventually kill him. To avoid meeting this fate, he abandons his son and leaves him to die.
Oedipus was found and raised by foster parents, under the assumption that they were his real parents. One day, he is also confronted with a dire warning—that he will kill his father and marry his widowed mother. Of course, Oedipus has no wish to kill the man he believes is his father or marry the woman he believes is his mother, so he abandons his home and foster parents and heads off to the city.
In the city, he meets a stranger and ends up in a fight with him. Once Oedipus kills the strange man, he marries his widow. He later learns that the man he killed was his actual father and that his new bride is actually his mother. By trying to avoid fate, both Laius and Oedipus manifested the prophecies.
Psychologists have found strong evidence for the impact of our beliefs and expectations on outcomes, particularly when we are convinced that our predictions will manifest, even when we aren’t aware that we hold the expectation.
For example, those who considered people of color to be intellectually inferior avoided talking to them, giving no chance to prove the racist individual wrong.
When a whole group of people is treated as if they are intellectually inferior, they are not given the same opportunities afforded to others that allow them to build their knowledge and improve their abilities.
When people know that entire groups of people view them as “other” or “lesser than,” then average performance for those groups experience racism is lower.
A person who is constantly doubting his ability to perform at his job may inadvertently sabotage himself. Since he is sure his work is subpar, he may avoid putting much time and effort into it or avoid doing it altogether. This results in a lack of practice and experience, which only serves to make his work even less competent, leading to even more self-doubt and even lower self-esteem.
Perhaps the most salient example of self-fulfilling prophecies in the workplace can be seen in the job interview. Imagine two people with the same qualifications: the same education, the same experience, the same skills. One is supremely confident in her ability to ace the interview, while the other is feeling insecure about his interview skills and predicts he will not get the job offer. The confident individual might enter into the interview with a smile and answer every question with grace, while the more insecure individual might stumble through their answers and doubt their qualification for the job.
Who do you think is more likely to get the job? Clearly, the interviewee who believes in themselves and acts on that belief is more likely to get a job offer than the interviewee who expects to fail.
It is an unfortunate cycle:
- we hold a belief or set of beliefs about ourselves;
- these beliefs influence our actions
- Our actions, shaped by our beliefs, impact the beliefs of the others
- The beliefs of the others cause them to act in ways consistent with those beliefs towards us, which reinforces our initial beliefs about ourselves.
A classic experiment by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen in the 1960s provided evidence for this idea: teacher expectations of students influenced student performance more than any differences in talent or intelligence.
The researchers conducted their experiment at a public elementary school, where they chose a group of children at random and told teachers that these students had taken the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition and were identified as “growth-spurters.” They explained that these children had great potential and would likely experience a great deal of intellectual growth within the next year.
They gathered performance data on all of the students and compared the “ordinary” students’ gains with the gains of the “growth-spurters.” The researchers found that the students whom the teachers expected to do well (the randomly chosen “growth-spurters”) actually did show greater improvement than their peers.
Since the children were not told of their false Test of Inflected Acquisition results, the only explanation for these outcomes is that the teachers’ expectations influenced student performance.
Examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology and medicine are what are known as the placebo effect and nocebo effect. The placebo and nocebo effects refer to the improvements and to the worsening in outcomes measured in subjects of scientific studies or clinical trials, even when the participants did not receive any meaningful treatment. The participants’ belief effects the “treatment” that they experience.
Horoscopes, distributed by astrologists on daily base through media, works according the to the placebo and nocebo effects.
In One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights, a notable example of self-fulfilling prophecy is the tale “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream“, in which a man is told in his dream to leave his native city of Baghdad and travel to Cairo, where he will discover the whereabouts of some hidden treasure. The man travels there and experiences misfortune after losing belief in the prophecy, ending up in jail, where he tells his dream to a police officer. The officer mocks the idea of foreboding dreams and tells the protagonist that he himself had a dream about a house with a courtyard and fountain in Baghdad where treasure is buried under the fountain. The man recognizes the place as his own house and, after he is released from jail, he returns home and digs up the treasure.
In Russian literature, a typical example is the story of Oleg of Novgorod, a Varangian prince who ruled over the Rus people during the early tenth century. The narrations says it was prophesied by the pagan priests that Oleg’s stallion would be the source of Oleg’s death. To avoid this he sent the horse away. Many years later he asked where his horse was, and was told it had died. He asked to see the remains and was taken to the place where the bones lay. When he touched the horse’s skull with his boot a snake slithered from the skull and bit him. Oleg died, thus fulfilling the prophecy.