Pitfalls in Thinking Part 5: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Pitfalls in Thinking Part 5: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

A self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a belief that comes true because we act in ways that make it more likely to occur. When we have positive or negative expectations about events, people, or circumstances, we are more likely to behave in ways that fulfill those expectations. A self-fulfilling prophecy, therefore, is the phenomenon whereby we unknowingly cause our prediction to come true simply because we expect it to. And, not only do we act in ways that lead us to find what we already expect to find, we then use that as evidence that we were right all along (and the cycle continues)!

A relatable example of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the proverbial student who struggles with math. Students who believe that they are terrible at math tend to put less effort into their homework and spend minimal time reviewing for their exams because they’re “going to fail anyway.” Of course, they are more likely to fail the exam because they are underprepared. However, the person is more likely to attribute their failure to their core belief that they “can’t do math” than fully acknowledge their minimal effort. Additionally, the anxiety caused or exacerbated by being underprepared and expecting to fail hinder the student in their test-taking strategies and their ability to recall information, only worsening their chances of succeeding on the exam and contributing to their lack of confidence and pessimism regarding the subject.

Self-fulfilling prophecies do not have to be negative. Individuals who are confident in their chances of success are more likely to put in their best effort, thereby increasing their chances of meeting their expectation of a positive outcome. Numerous studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that people who believe that a certain treatment or course of action will result in positive outcomes often experience benefits that cannot be attributed to the properties of the treatment itself. This phenomenon, called the placebo effect, is a prime example of how positive expectations can lead to beneficial effects. On the other hand, people may also experience nocebo effects when they expect to have negative outcomes, such as concern about specific side-effects when beginning a new medication. Our expectations affect our future experiences!

Relationships are also affected by self-fulfilling prophecies. Consider a situation in which a misunderstanding in your first interaction with a new co-worker leads you to believe that he is rude. In many cases, you avoid that person and perhaps are shorter with him than you are with other co-workers. Your co-worker then begins to experience you as a rude person, so he begins to act rudely back. You now have “confirmation” that he is the rude person you expected him to be and act even more poorly towards him. Yikes! Of course, relationships can be positively affected by expectations as well; it all depends on the quality of our beliefs and expectations regarding each person/interaction.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt, seeking to resolve misunderstandings through calm and productive communication, and carefully reflecting on our thoughts and decision-making processes can help reduce the potential for mindlessly engaging in behaviors that act out our beliefs and expectations without our awareness. What we expect greatly influences how we see ourselves, the world, and the people around us – at the very least, we should be aware of our tendencies, so we can make decisions that maximize our chances for contentment and success. It certainly brings a new level of appreciation for the adage “fake it ‘til you make it” and the tremendous value of positive thinking!

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