Published on December 27th, 20125
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
Have you ever had the experience of waking up one day following a lousy night’s sleep after several nightmares and thought to yourself: “this is going to be a crappy day”, and at the end of the day concluded that your predictions were correct and this was exactly what happened? You may have been thinking to yourself that you completely predicted the outcome of your day, and that you probably should have stayed at home this day.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is a concept used by the American sociologist Robert Merton to describe how a statement may alter actions and therefore become true. In situations where many individuals act on the basis of an expectation, they may actually influence whether an incident will take place or not. When this is happening the individuals create the very conditions they actually believe exist. Even when where there is no reason to worry, the feared outcome may take place if enough people act as if there were some kind of basis for the fear.
Self-fulfilling prophecies often lead to unfavourable outcomes. The dire expectation that an event may take place may have serious consequences, such as bankruptcies, scarcity of food and goods, pressures on the stock-markets, and may even lead to wars. People may for example, act on a false rumour that the stocks will decline, or that there will be a shortage of butter in the close future. If enough people act on these false rumours by selling their stocks and buying huge quantities of butter, they will actually cause the expected event to occur.
One example of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the placebo effect. The placebo effect has been demonstrated in several studies, and may be described as the felt improvement in health but which is not attributable to the medication, or the given treatment. Instead, the patient’s belief in the treatment will enhance the immune system, and lead to faster recovery.
The self-fulfilling prophecy has also been demonstrated in experiments where people justify their prejudices toward members of other ethnic groups. This could be illustrated by the following statement: “We don’t want those people here because they only stick to themselves anyway, they are so chauvinistic on behalf of themselves.”
While the self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t have the force to alter natural events such as hurricanes or earthquakes, your personal attitude may influence smaller everyday situations as how you relate to other people and their response to your behavior. If you apply an optimistic mindset you may for example influence other people to perceive you in a positive way.
People who tend to be caught in negative self-fulfilling prophecies often suffer from low self-esteem where they act upon an overly critical self-evaluation. They tend to have a pessimistic view on the world and their chances to influence their own situation for the better. This leads to a vicious cycle, where their negative mindset strengthens their self-fulfilling prophecies.
In sum, increased awareness of how to avoid the negative effects of self-fulfilling prophecies may be for the good not only for people in their daily lives, but also for society as a whole.
Merton, Robert K. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure.New York: Free Press.
*Cover photo by Victoriia Z, newspaper photo by Ralph Daily, statue photo by Stuart Richards