The 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 the behavior results in the initial false conception turn true. It affects the way people behave in the social setting due to the expectations of the people leading to the 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 to have 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 consequence” (Thomas, 1928). Thomas believed that people often react to the way they perceive and define a situation. 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 without any intention to put the people who kept their money in the bank under any loss. 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 went bankrupt. Although the bank was not insolvent earlier, with so many customers demanding money at the same time, the bank had to declare bankruptcy. Through this imaginary situation, Merton also provided a solution to break the cycle of the self-fulfilling prophecy. He viewed 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 self-fulfilling prophecy causes the prediction to become true, the self-defeating prophecy prevents a prediction 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 thought of not being a good speaker. While in contrast, if the person believes that he/she can easily give the speech confidently, the audience would actually admire the confidence and appraise the speaker.
While it is seen to be advantageous, many evidences also show how it is far from conclusive. It not only has methodological problems but also most of them are difficult to replace. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies degrading the performance are equally present as those of the positive ones that enhance performance. Lastly, critiques also believe that people operate on their own motivations and goals rather than performing on the basis of other people’s expectations.