If you tend to be skeptical, ideas like the power of positive thinking and The Secret can be hard to wrap your head around. How can beliefs be so powerful? How can thinking something about yourself or others actually make a change? Can science even prove this?
In fact, yes. Psychologists have found evidence to support that beliefs can make a big change, even when those beliefs reflected false truths about someone or something. Some of this evidence lies in the idea of a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In this video, I will explain what a self-fulfilling prophecy is and how research has proven that even a false truth can be made real with just the powers of belief. Self-fulfilling prophecies have changed the lives of people throughout history and has become the basic plotline for a number of classic movies, plays, and books.
But what exactly is it?
What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
Robert Merton was a sociologist and psychologist who grew up in South Philadelphia. He created the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” while studying at Harvard University. A self-fulfilling prophecy, according to Merton, is:
“A false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.”
Many believe that Merton’s own upbringing played a big part in his creation of the self-fulfilling prophecy. He was born to Eastern European immigrants and lived in a poor area of South Philadelphia. But he was growing up during a time in which “The American Dream” promised prosperity and wealth to immigrants who came to America and worked hard.
The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy isn’t far off from The Law of Attraction, the power of positive thinking, and other ideas about manifestation. If you believe something about yourself, you will continue to embody those beliefs whether or not they are “true.”
But the self-fulfilling prophecy works in a cycle and can explain how prejudice, bias, and snap judgements about others can actually have a bigger impact than we might think.
How the cycle works
Self-fulfilling prophecies work in a cycle. We first have beliefs about ourselves. Maybe it’s that we’re able to take on the world or that we are helpless. These beliefs influence our actions. If you believe you can take on the world, for example, you may confidently go out and run for city council. Other people see your actions and they beliefs about you. They see your confidence and efforts to change the world and think, “Wow. That person really can take on the world.” They then begin to act in a way that reflects those beliefs. For example, they may vote for you. They may tell neighbors that you are confident. They may applaud you at a town hall.
Then, you see those actions. You see the people clapping for you and you feel the support of townspeople. These events confirm the beliefs you have about yourself, and the cycle begins again.
Of course, this cycle can be broken or infiltrated at any stage. If someone has low expectations of you from the get-go, you may start to fulfill those expectations. Self-fulfilling prophecies do not have to start with the beliefs you have about yourself. As you’ll see throughout the studies and examples of this phenomenon, you’ll realize that we impose self-fulfilling prophecies on others all the time. When society tells you that everyone who is of a certain race, gender, religion, etc. is a “good person” or a “bad person,” it can be tempting to fall into those roles and continue that self-fulfilling prophecy.
We see the self-fulfilling prophecy play out in movies and real life all the time. Take Mean Girls. Cady Heron doesn’t start the movie out as a “mean girl.” She just pretends to be one to get back at Regina George. But throughout the film, people start to treat her like she’s the most popular girl in school. That belief begins to take hold in Cady until she “loses control.” She becomes a mean girl through the self-fulfilling prophecy.
But this isn’t just an occurrence that happens in movies. Take an interview. Multiple studies have been conducted on how self-fulfilling prophecies play out in interviews when the interview subject is perceived to be more or less qualified than others.
On one hand, if an attractive woman is brought in for an interview, the interviewer is more likely to be kind and friendly toward the interview subject. This warm energy and open body language is well received by the interviewee, who then does better throughout the conversation.
In one well-known study, described in “The Nonverbal Mediation of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Interracial Interactions” researchers put white and African-American interview subjects in front of white interviewers. When the researchers observed the interviewers as they talked to white and then African-American interviewees, they noticed significant differences in body language. The African-American candidates were also given an interview that was 25% shorter than the white candidates.
This study was conducted in 1974, but given the rhetoric that still exists against minority groups and women, it still strikes an uncomfortable chord today.
Example 1: The Great Depression/Recession
How powerful is a self-fulfilling prophecy? One could say it can cause a depression or a recession that affects the lives of everyone in the country.
How? Fears of the recession change the way that people handle their money. In the case of a recession, consumers may withhold their money and spend less. Even if the average consumer spends 5% less than they did previously, the entire GDP could drop by 3.5%. In the case of the Great Depression, fears about failing banks led people to withdraw all of their money from the banks. The banks couldn’t cover such dramatic changes and eventually, they crashed.
Example 2: Marriage Material
A self-fulfilling prophecy can also affect who you end up spending your life with. When you enter into a relationship, you might have certain expectations for where it goes or how the person will fit into your life. You might take one look at a person and think that they are marriage material. You court them, you are patient with them, and you put a lot of effort into that relationship. The person gets the hint that you are serious and, if they believe you are marriage material too, with reciprocate with the same commitment to the relationship.
The opposite may also happen. If you just believe someone is a quick fling, you’re less likely to “court” them and take the relationship seriously. That sends a message too, and the other person is less likely to stick around.
Example 3: Oedipus
The Oedipus Complex is not an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the story of Oedipus is. There are plenty of classic stories about self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you don’t know the story of Oedipus, here is a quick summary. Oedipus is born and his father is told that Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Upon hearing this news, Oedipus’s father abandons him and leaves him to die. Oedipus is found by another family. He hears about his fate, and to avoid killing the father who raised him, he leaves his family. Shortly after, he gets into a fight with his birth father and kills him. He marries the man’s widow, who he eventually learns is his mother. The prophecy is fulfilled.
Fairy tales, stories from A Thousand and One Nights, and Macbeth also contain tales with self-fulfilling prophecies. Of course, these are fiction, but they were all written to comment on the actual phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Example 4: Hockey
Did you know that 40% of hockey players are born between January and March? There’s an answer for why this occurs, and it has to do with the self-fulfilling prophecy.
In Canada, hockey teams cut off age groups starting on January 1. The kids who were born in January and March are months older than the kids born in April-December. A kid born in January may be almost a full year older than a kid born in December. When you’re still growing, those 11 months can make a big difference. The kids born in January through March are much more likely to be bigger and taller than the younger kids. This gives them a serious advantage, and coaches are more likely to start them or focus on them throughout practice. All of that extra attention and practice pays off - they’re more likely to go pro.
Researchers have tested out the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is also known as the “Pygmalion Effect.”
Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen conducted the first experiments on the Pygmalion Effect in the 1960s. Rosenthal and Jacobsen chose a group of students at random and told their teachers that they were given a special test. The results of that test showed that the students were “growth-spurters.”
In reality, the test scores didn’t necessarily show that the students stood out from their peers. But the teachers didn’t know that.
At the end of the year, the researchers looked at how the students did. The ones that were considered the “growth-spurters” made significant improvements over the course of the year. The children didn’t know about the supposed results of the test - it was only the teachers. This proved that the belief that the teachers had about the students was a catalyst in the students’ improvement.
The Pygmalion Effect is a positive thing when you think about experiments like the one with the growth-spurters. But think about the ways that the opposite Pygmalion Effect occurs in everyday life. When media, including the news and movies, tells you that one group of people is violent, how could that impact how you treat them and how they view themselves? When influential figures tell you that a group of people is less deserving of rights or that they are inherently greedy, how could that play into self-fulfilling prophecies?
The students had no part in the study mentioned earlier, but were affected. Take a look at your own life. What stereotypes, judgements, or beliefs are holding you back from success? How can your beliefs and your actions change that to make your life, and the lives of others, better?