The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen

Have you ever had the experience of waking up one day following a lousy night’s sleep after several nightmares and thought to yourself: “this is going to be a crappy day”, and at the end of the day concluded that your predictions were correct and this was exactly what happened? You may have been thinking to yourself that you completely predicted the outcome of your day, and that you probably should have stayed at home this day.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is a concept used by the American sociologist Robert Merton to describe how a statement may alter actions and therefore become true. In situations where many individuals act on the basis of an expectation, they may actually influence whether an incident will take place or not. When this is happening the individuals create the very conditions they actually believe exist. Even when where there is no reason to worry, the feared outcome may take place if enough people act as if there were some kind of basis for the fear.

Self-fulfilling prophecies often lead to unfavourable outcomes. The dire expectation that an event may take place may have serious consequences, such as bankruptcies, scarcity of food and goods, pressures on the stock-markets, and may even lead to wars. People may for example, act on a false rumour that the stocks will decline, or that there will be a shortage of butter in the close future. If enough people act on these false rumours by selling their stocks and buying huge quantities of butter, they will actually cause the expected event to occur.

One example of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the placebo effect. The placebo effect has been demonstrated in several studies, and may be described as the felt improvement in health but which is not attributable to the medication, or the given treatment. Instead, the patient’s belief in the treatment will enhance the immune system, and lead to faster recovery.

The self-fulfilling prophecy has also been demonstrated in experiments where people justify their prejudices toward members of other ethnic groups. This could be illustrated by the following statement: “We don’t want those people here because they only stick to themselves anyway, they are so chauvinistic on behalf of themselves.”

While the self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t have the force to alter natural events such as hurricanes or earthquakes, your personal attitude may influence smaller everyday situations as how you relate to other people and their response to your behavior. If you apply an optimistic mindset you may for example influence other people to perceive you in a positive way.

People who tend to be caught in negative self-fulfilling prophecies often suffer from low self-esteem where they act upon an overly critical self-evaluation. They tend to have a pessimistic view on the world and their chances to influence their own situation for the better. This leads to a vicious cycle, where their negative mindset strengthens their self-fulfilling prophecies.

In sum, increased awareness of how to avoid the negative effects of self-fulfilling prophecies may be for the good not only for people in their daily lives, but also for society as a whole.

Further reading:
Merton, Robert K. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure.New York: Free Press.

self fulfilling prophecy

Using Self-Fulfilling Prophecies to Your Advantage

Why “fake it ’til you make it” is good advice

October 11, 2012        by Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D. in Psychology for Writers

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy CycleHow the self-fulfilling prophecy worksA self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it is already true. New Agers call this The Law of Attraction (see, for example, Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 self-help book The Secret), but there’s really nothing mystical about it. Our expectation that we will see a particular outcome changes our behavior, which shapes the way others see us. In turn, others provide the feedback we’ve set ourselves up to get, which serves to reinforce the original belief.

Let’s say, for example, that I’m going to a party where I don’t know many people. If I believe I don’t make a good first impression, or I worry that nobody will talk to me, I will probably enter the party acting awkward, anxious, and standoffish. In turn, people are likely to interact with me with less enthusiasm, or they may ignore or shun me. Which only reinforces my belief that I’m not good with people I don’t know.

If, by contrast, I enter the party believing that I’m good with people I don’t know and expecting to make new friends, I’m likely to be outgoing, engaging, and less apt to take a cold shoulder personally. As a result, people will likely respond amiably to my friendliness and I may indeed make new friends.

So that old “fake it ‘til you make it” advice is pretty darn good advice.

Though many writers are solitary creatures, we are just as susceptible to self-fulfilling prophecies as anyone else. Our behaviors towards others impact others’ behaviors toward us.

Let’s take the querying process, for example. Let’s assume you’ve completed a project and had it vetted by trustworthy beta readers, and now it’s as polished as you know how to make it. Let’s also assume that you know how to write a decent, professional query letter.

If you believe your project is strong and feel confident about it, you will probably write a strong, confident letter. More importantly, you will be motivated to find reputable agents who will be interested in your project and tenacious about sending out your queries. If, by contrast, you are uncertain about your project and its merits, you may have trouble writing an upbeat, engaging letter.  Each rejection will punch holes in your resoluteness, and you’ll spend far more time worrying about what’s wrong with your story (or your query) than you will actually striving to get your project out there.

That faith in your project and yourself will also serve you well when it comes to marketing your book. (And these days much of the marketing does fall to the writer, not the publisher.) If you don’t believe anyone will want to buy your book, why would you bother doing the work to market it? If, on the other hand, you believe you have something others will really enjoy or find useful, you will be enthusiastic about reaching out to possible readers. And enthusiasm is contagious.

Caveat: Confidence is useful; arrogance, not so much. Some writers get presumptuous and self-aggrandizing and approach agents and editors by using unrealistic, overblown statements like “This is guaranteed to be a bestseller!” or “You are now reading a letter from the next JK Rowling!” These things neither inform the agent/editor about your project, nor endear you to him or her.  Humility and a willingness to learn usually go a lot farther.  Fortunately, confidence and humility can go together.

What are some ways you see self-fulfilling prophecies operating in your writing life? Where are they holding you back?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior

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