Self-fulfilling prophecy is a phrase that gets thrown around casually, but do people really understand what it means? As common as it’s usage is, many people continue to behave in a way that shows they are sold on the prophecies they’re self-fulfilling.
With that in mind, let us delve into the psychology that is behind self-fulfilling prophecies and learn why they carry so much power.
What Is A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to become true, literally a prophecy that fulfills itself.
A good example of this is the self-defeating mindset, if John believes he isn’t capable of doing good at school, that belief will influence his behavior (John will refuse to study because,”what’s the point?”).
Soon enough, it’s time for school exams and John ends up failing his tests, thus “proving” that school isn’t for him.
An effective way to understand how self-fulfilling prophecies work is by getting familiar with what psychologists call schemas.
What Are Schemas?
Schemas are basically a mental concept our brain uses to help organize information.
Our brains use schemas to better understand the world by using old information to perceive new information.
A helpful way to understand schemas is to think of the idea of winter. When you think of winter, you probably think of cold temperatures, snow, holidays, the end of the year…etc.
The idea of winter is vague at first, so our brains use different associations, like “cold” and “holidays”, to give us a more clear concept of winter, or a schema of winter.
Schemas are subjective, not objective. For example, people living in countries where it never snows don’t associate snow with the concept of winter.
Social Roles Are A Type Of Schema
Past experiences with people that play specific social roles, like co-workers, help our brains form a schema about how those people are generally like and what is to be expected of them.
If an employee named Jean is constantly exposed to toxic co-workers, who purposely undermine others in their team by gossiping and backstabbing them, over time Jean will form a schema of what co-workers are like based on what she’s experienced.
The concept (or schema) of a “co-worker” now has words like backstabbing, lying, gossip, and toxic associated with it (from Jean’s perspective), all of which are negative traits and actions.
The vague concept of “co-worker” is now more defined in Jean’s mind, while previously Jean didn’t know what to expect from other employees.
The newly-formed schema then dictates how Jean will perceive any new workers she come across (at least initially) regardless of what those workers are actually like.
Jean might act defensive and distrusting towards them, as past experiences have taught her that everyone at work is troublesome, backstabbing and out to get her.
notice the words backstabbing, lying, gossip and toxic used above. How do they make you feel? Did you find yourself feeling more negative as you read them for the first time? Do you have negative or positive associations with those words?
Other Types Of Schema
There are several kinds of schemas that our brain uses, like schemas of social roles mentioned earlier. Self-fulfilling prophecies are a type of schema, too.
We apply many types of schemas to different aspects of our life. When we follow our daily routines, we are following what psychologists call a behavioral script.
Scripts are a series of behaviors that people are expected to make depending on the given setting or situation.
Here are some common examples of behavioral scripts:
- Someone new approaches you smiling with their hand extended outward, you smile, introduce yourself back and shake hands with them.
- When eating at a restaurant, you enter, sit at a table, take an order, eat, pay and then leave.
- You wake up in the morning, go to the bathroom, make coffee, greet your family and then head to work.
are these behavioral scripts part of your reportoire? Can you think of some of your own unique behavioral scripts that you follow unconsciously? Do you find them useful, hindering or neutral?
Schemas do not rely on complex thought to analyze and sort new perceptions, our brains do it automatically.
Scripts are the type of schema that may require the least amount of mental effort because not much time is invested on deciding what the appropriate action is for a given situation.
How Schemas Influence Our Behavior
Going back to the example of Jean, when she is exposed to a different situation, like a different job with different co-workers, her brain does not see it as an entirely new experience.
Rather, she views a familiar situation with patterns she recognizes, and she proceeds to act accordingly.
Our brains don’t look at new situations objectively, they look for signs or patterns of events that occured in the past.
This is faster and more efficient than trying to re-analyze a familiar situation every time we are exposed to a new environment.
Rather than Jean’s brain “starting over” and reassessing a new job setting, she may instead choose to adapt and become toxic herself, or she might grow resentful of people at the workplace and jobs in general, even if newer work environments aren’t actually toxic.
Jean’s expectations and schemas influence her behavior and perceptions.
However, her subjective outlook can distort what is happening outside of her mind.
In order to quickly understand as accurately as possible what new information means, our schemas serve to fill holes in that new information, but sometimes we fill the holes of information with what we think is there.
This is a biased approach that relies only on the past and our own subjective point of view, and not entirely on what is actually based in reality.
The Problem With Schemas
So far we’ve learned that schemas use memories of what we’ve done and seen to guide us and help us understand the gist of things.
They are quick and efficient mental frameworks that are usually accurate.
However, it becomes apparent early on that schemas, helpful as they are, can be misleading at times.
Going against our schemata and biases is difficult, we are trying to comprehend the world around us at all times, so getting rid of the tools making that task simpler sounds counterproductive.
It’s for this reason that people hold on to long-held and useful beliefs even when they are given strong evidence that disproves those same beliefs.
Eliminating a set of beliefs that have made our lives simpler and easier just to satisfy someone else’s worldview is bothersome and people rarely ever do so.
How This Relates To Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
With this knowledge at our disposal, we can now understand what a self-fulflling prophecy does and how it can impact outcomes.
A self-fulfilling prophecy can be seen as a schema that has profound consequences, regardless of whether the schema is true or not.
Let’s take a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, like a self-defeating prophecy, to illustrate this.
When someone thinks they can’t accomplish anything because they feel they are inadequate, that person has a schema about their own self which they view as incompetent, incapable and generally “not good enough”.
This schema would be based on past experiences, events like someone’s parents and other authority figures discouraging them, being mocked by piers whenever they’ve failed in the past, bullying and abuse…etc.
The schema itself is not necessarily formed by actual measures of self-worth and competence, but by observing how others have treated them as a child, which led them to eventually believe that there is “something wrong with them”.
Despite the fact that the person who believes they are “not good enough” has no real evidence to back their beliefs, that person will still behave as if they truly are unworthy and inadequate.
They will let others take advantage of them and mistreat them because unconsciously they think that they deserve it.
A person that believes they can’t accomplish anything will avoid taking chances and opportunities because they prophesize, or predict, that they will inevitably fail.
Even if they were to attempt to do something, when they end up making an honest mistake, they will take it as proof of their inadequacy and not for what it was, a mistake anyone would make.
This is what self-fulfilling prophecies can do, they continuously prove themselves to be real by impacting someone’s behavior to make the prediction come true.
Are Self-Fulfilling Prophecies Inherently Negative?
There are several kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies, but they are not necessarily detrimental in nature. One of the most famous and well-known self-fulfilling prophecies is the Placebo effect.
Another notable prophecy is the Pygmalion effect, named after a character in greek mythology who fell in love with the statue he carved.
The Pygmalion effect occurs when having higher expectations leads to an increase in performance.
How Expectations Influence Behavior
The power of the Pygmalion effect was demonstrated in a famous study done by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.
In their study, students in an elementary school were given disguised IQ tests and, without disclosing the grades to the teachers, 20% of the students were randomly chosen to be “intellectually gifted”.
The teachers were told who those students were, unaware that they were selected at random.
By the end of the school year, the students who were randomly selected as “intellectual bloomers” performed better than their peers.
Rosenthal concluded that the expectations the teachers had from the randomly chosen students influenced the teachers’ behavior and perhaps motivated them to work harder on, and provide more opportunities to, their “intellectually gifted” students.
When people are given more opportunities to succeed, as well as more encouragement and motivation, they are often more likely to succeed, and vice versa.
It is entirely possible that someone who has little expectations from themselves is selling themselves short and not utilizing their full potential.
Not only does expecting little from ourselves limit our success, but as demonstrated in the Rosenthal study, when other people expect less of us, they will act in a way that fulfills their expectations.
Now that we have this information, what comes next?
Well having the information is an important first step.
Being aware of just how powerful expectations are means we won’t take them so lightly anymore. If you’re expecting someone to behave a certain way, you now know that the expectation you have is influencing both your behavior and the person you’re interacting with.
This, of course, applies to expectations you have of yourself. It’s crucial that you are mindful of what you say and what you expect from yourself.
Just because you have an expectation, that doesn’t mean acting on it is the correct choice. Similarly, not all your expectations are your own, some might be a result of parents’ expectations or from society, even if they feel like they belong to you.
Whether you have been aware of the power of expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies or not, they have tremendous influence over you and everyone around you.
Changing your expectations will have a direct impact on your behavior and, as a result, your environment, that is a fact.
That means it’s up to you to combat the negative expectations that have been forced onto you, to take advantage of any useful schemas you may have, and to form your own empowering and positive self-fulfilling prophecies.
Expect the best from yourself, you can do it!