Self-fulfilling prophecy : Explained with Examples

A self-fulfilling prophecy is an expectation about something or a prediction that later becomes true due to the terms of the prophecy itself. Although the prophecy might not be true initially, the positive feedback between belief and behavior results in the initial false conception becoming true. It influences how people behave in social situations because of their expectations, which leads to confirmation of those predictions or expectations.

The expression ‘self-fulfilling prophecy” was developed by the sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 20th century. He is also credited with having formulated the structure and consequences of the prophecy. The Thomas Theorem led to the development of Merton’s Self Fulfilling Prophecy. According to the Thomas theorem, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas, 1928). Thomas believed that people often react to situations based on how they perceive and define them. So, their perception and definition of a particular situation influence their behavior.

Merton adopted this concept and used it for recent social phenomena. He, in his book, Social Theory and Social Structure conceived about a fictional bank run. A bank invests its assets in various ventures with no intention of causing financial loss to the people who keep their money in the bank. However, on the same day, a lot of customers, without any known reason, came to withdraw money. Seeing so many people, a rumor broke out saying that the bank had gone bankrupt. Although the bank was not insolvent earlier, with so many customers demanding money at the same time, the bank had to declare bankruptcy. Merton also provided a solution to break the cycle of the self-fulfilling prophecy through this fictitious situation. He believed that if the propositions giving rise to the original false assumptions are redefined, the prophecy can be broken.

Another prophecy known as the “self-defeating prophecy” is considered to be the complementary opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While a self-fulfilling prophecy causes the prediction to come true, the self-defeating prophecy prevents it from occurring.  Self-fulfilling prophecy can be beneficial at times. For instance, while preparing for a public speech for the first time, if one assumes or believes that he/she will not be able to become a good speaker, or would fail miserably at giving the speech, he/she might end up acting weird or getting anxious, thereby missing out points from the speech. This negative belief only reinforces the idea of not being a good speaker. In contrast, if the person believes that he/she can easily give the speech confidently, the audience would actually admire the confidence and appreciate the speaker.

While it is regarded as advantageous, numerous evidences show that it is far from conclusive. It not only has methodological issues, but the majority of its components are difficult to replace. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies that degrade performance are equally present as those that enhance it. Lastly, critics also believe that people operate on their own motivations and goals rather than performing on the basis of other people’s expectations.

Also Read: Pygmalion effect

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