The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy | Positive Psychology Concept Series
By: Mihaela Zlatanovska
This blog has been reviewed by Laura Amodeo and Omar Elfarseisy, and edited, formatted, and published by Nicholas Murray.
What is the self-fulfilling prophecy?
You may have heard of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ in your introductory psychology class. Perhaps the concept was explained to you, but it was never named.
The term ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ was coined by Robert K. Merton in 1948 and was defined as “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true”¹. Essentially, an assumption you have of others can make you behave in ways that evoke responses from others that match your original assumption. For example, if you recently received the phone number of your crush, you might be anxiously waiting for him/her to text you. If some time passes and you haven’t heard from them, you might be quick to think they aren’t interested. In turn, you might not take the chance to message them first, leading your crush to believe you are disinterested, and the cycle continues. This can also be applied to how we treat ourselves.
Where does the self-fulfilling prophecy originate from in psychology?
The Pygmalion effect (a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy) was experimentally discovered by a landmark study conducted by Rosenthall and Jacobsen in 1968². The researchers went to an elementary school and gave the students a test called the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition. Teachers were told this test was able to detect children that had an unusual potential to bloom intellectually; the teachers were then made aware of certain students that possessed this potential. In reality, this test was incapable of predicting future intellectual capabilities–the high and low-scoring children were simply chosen at random. The purpose of this study was to see how the teacher’s expectations might affect the children’s success. Sure enough, when they returned 8 months later and were administered a battery of IQ tests, they found that students who were earlier noted for greater intellectual potential were scoring higher than the rest. The researchers determined the teachers gave more of their attention and care to the students they believed had special potential. The teachers would also give the students more challenging tasks and would help guide them more often, allowing them to learn more than the other students.
This effect was later tested at higher levels of education and in a myriad of institutions outside of the education system. The same results were consistently observed. The above study is an amazing example of how this effect can unfairly affect real-life outcomes. So, how can we be aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy in our own lives, and how can we prevent possible negative outcomes?
What does the self-fulfilling prophecy have to do with positive psychology?
Catherine Cimon-Paquet (a fellow CPPA Student Ambassador) perfectly described the discipline of positive psychology in her blog post, Positive Psychology: A Necessary Revolution (part of the Positive Psychology Concept Series) as “[a field focusing] on the strengths of individuals and communities and their optimal functioning”. Positive psychology focuses on practices such as mindfulness, gratitude, and self-compassion to allow individuals to cultivate better mental health states, while decreasing levels of depression, anxiety, and stress³. It focuses on inspiring people to work towards a more fulfilling and gratifying life.
The self-fulfilling prophecy can impede our pathway to living a fulfilling life. The negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs we hold about ourselves can be an unconscious factor leading to our failures and downfalls. Here is a more recent intrapersonal example that was explored in a study: Stinson, Logel, Shepherd & Zanna (2011) wanted to see if they could design an intervention to break the self-fulling prophecy in chronically insecure individuals. These individuals are “people who are most concerned about acceptance from others, and indeed crave acceptance the most, [who] often behave in ways that result in rejection, an outcome that unfortunately serves to reinforce insecurity and undermine well-being”. To break the cycle, participants in the treatment condition were instructed to write an essay explaining why their top-ranked value (i.e. academics) was most important to them, explain why they chose that value as the most important, and how it affected their lives and their self-image. This practice of self-affirmation had a strong effect on reducing participants’ feelings of insecurity for up to eight weeks! Participants showed elevated levels of security in their romantic or platonic relationships two months after the exercise.⁴ This is a big deal! This is an example of how we might be enforcing the self-fulfilling prophecy onto ourselves and how we can break the cycle.
What is the takeaway?
In today’s world, it is easy sometimes to blame external sources for our unhappiness, or believe that happiness is only achieved through material possession; the number of adventures we’ve had; or simply the amount of money in our bank account. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others and see what they have that we don’t. If we don’t have what they do, are we really happy? I encourage you to look within yourself and question the beliefs you hold–ask yourself: what is happiness FOR YOU? Not based on others around you, or people you look up to–what would you like happiness to look like?
I encourage you to look within yourself and question the beliefs you hold–ask yourself: what is happiness FOR YOU?
The purpose of this blog is to shine the spotlight on an unconscious process that might be damaging us and our chances of success and happiness in a way that we never believed could happen. So I urge you to take a moment after reading this and reflect on the perceptions you hold about yourself, and maybe write down a few positive affirmations. Put them on a post-it note (or anywhere visually accessible) and place them somewhere you will see on a daily basis. Remind yourself that sometimes our thoughts and feelings can push us exactly in the direction we fear. Our thoughts are not who we are.
If you wish to contact me for more information, any questions you might have, or just to discuss the information I have shared, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked this article and are interested in more, please take a moment to like, share, or comment! If you are interested in learning more about the types of skills I’ve mentioned or positive psychology more generally, I encourage you to become a member of the CPPA. And don’t forget to check out our Student Zone too!
- Biggs, M. (2011). Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology. Published. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199215362.013.13.
- Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16–20. doi:10.1007/bf02322211.
- Stinson, D. A., Logel, C., Shepherd, S., & Zanna, M. P. (2011). Rewriting the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Social Rejection. Psychological Science, 22(9), 1145–1149. doi:10.1177/0956797611417725.