The Concept of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

30 January, 2021
A self-fulfilling prophecy happens when certain beliefs lead you to do exactly what your fear. Either that or they simply encourage you to behave in a certain way. 

A self-fulfilling prophecy is an elucidated idea that eventually comes true. It’s like a mental gadget that turns mere thoughts into facts. Furthermore, it’s a statement you hold true. Thus, it operates as a prediction that leads to its occurrence once it pops into your head.

The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy was coined by sociologist Robert Merton. He referred to it as the false definition of situations that awaken a new behavior and that make such conceptions come true.

People don’t simply react to how situations are, but to their interpretation of them (things aren’t in themselves, but the attribution you make of them). Thus, the determination of subsequent behavior is, in part, by their perception and the meaning attributed to situations. This is because people will adapt their behavior to that perception. Furthermore, it’ll have consequences in the real world once they convince themselves that a situation has a certain meaning,

“Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.”

-Howard Zinn-

A seemingly upset woman.

Types of self-fulfilling prophecies

Some prophecies fulfill in a personal way. One is convinced that a certain event will happen and the personal behaviors lead them to produce that reality. For example, someone picks up a tray with various cups of coffee and thinks they’re going to drop them. This thought makes them nervous, and they begin to shake. The drinks finally end up on the floor.

Other prophecies develop during interactions with others. Especially when you start from assumptions about what your interlocutor will think, say or do. These are the result of validating your assumption instead of translating it into a question in pursuit of meta-communication. As you can see, it becomes true as soon as you think it is.

The Pygmalion effect

In psychology, this effect refers to the influence of one person’s beliefs on another’s performance. It’s an expectation that incites people to take action and fulfill expectations. For example, a mother sees her son pretending to be a carpenter and begins to worry that he might hammer a finger. She puts so much pressure on the child, instills so much fear in him, that he ends up hammering his finger, just as she told him he would.

There are also self-fulfilling prophecies at a macro level that makes up social or economic phenomena, for example. These constitute a true sociological phenomenon. Therefore, they develop in diverse contexts of human life — social, cultural, personal, political, family, economic, etc. In addition, they range from minimal constructions based on gestures to large movements and actions of the economy.

There are just some examples that show how what starts from personal hypotheses or simple imagination ends up creating realities. Many dollar price increases were due to rumors that it’s going up in price. People become desperate to buy more, so they become scarce. Thus, their value increases in the market.

Inventing and spreading

Speculations about something such as that the price of bread will increase due to a shortage of flour automatically generates the desire in people to buy bread, even though they seldom eat it. They want to save some just because there’s a shortage of it (no to mention the fact that lack generates desire).

Suddenly, bread becomes scarce because more people than usual will try to buy it and will get more than they need. Of course, those who didn’t get the memo will eventually figure out why and will then be in charge of spreading the news. Such overbuying and the remaining bread will become coveted and its value will increase. Thus, the bread will increase in price for sure.

Prophecies in panic attacks and agoraphobia

A prototype of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the one that happens during panic attacks. People who experience them often develop a series of actions to nullify the possibility. This is because they’re so afraid of the symptoms that this fear transforms into panic and then into a panic attack.

A person experiencing panic attack symptoms expects an upcoming one 24 hours a day. They do so even though it’s only happened once or twice. This kind of person wakes up thinking about their symptoms and praying they won’t appear.

They repeat the mantra, “I’ll be fine, nothing’s going to happen to me,” without realizing they’re having one. Thus, they’re already sensing fear when they’re afraid of a panic attack and their entire biological system is on the lookout for it. That is, the adrenal gland is already spitting adrenaline and cortisol into their bloodstream.

Their muscles are already tense, their heart is racing, and their chest compressed. This is why they’re short of breath and hyperventilating. It causes a superlative production of carbon dioxide that makes them dizzy. This, in turn, upsets their stomach, makes them feel nauseous, and they get cold sweats and tremors. As you can see, they build their entire symptomatology from nothing and this constitutes their panic repertoire.

Prophecies in the gestures of an interlocutor

This is another target of prophecy, as these are a kind of cinema screen in which people project themselves and make up their own story. They may mistake a scowl for anger, myopia, reflection, headache, grumpiness, or upset stomach, among others.

Thus, you’ll act accordingly if you don’t try to guess what the gesture means. It isn’t the same to short-sight the other person as being angry. As you can see, it’s quite feasible to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, you believe a person is angry, so you ask them if they are and they say they aren’t. However, you think they’re lying and continue to ask them why they’re angry. They’ll eventually respond badly and, thus, confirm your assumption.

Self-fulfilling prophecy and sex

These human interactions are most exposed to complications, given the high degree of emotional susceptibility people subject them to. Take impotence, for example. It’s enough for a man’s ego to be hurt by not having an erection one single time. Thus, they jump into several successive “failures”.

It’s common for these men to make excuses and think that, perhaps, their work overload is responsible for their fatigue; it’s stressing them. All in an attempt to disguise their sexual inability. Their lover tries to minimize the fact — not without some mistrust. Nevertheless, the experience is like a missile aimed at their self-esteem.

Thus, their old insecurities resurface. Frequently, there’s a second round, a test, and both are dying to do it. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to have a good result when you lose spontaneity. Especially if you think you’ll be scored on your performance. As you can see, this is the ultimate pass towards failure.

Two people in bed.

Self-fulfilling prophecy in teachers and students

A teacher will make their own interpretation according to the experience they may have had with a given group of students. In fact, they’ll explain it to the next group who signs up for the course. For example, a teacher who completes the third year passes the information to the teacher who’ll have the same group in the fourth year.

Thus, they tell the incoming teacher about the group they’re about to have and give them an opinion along the lines of “They’re an awful group! They’re confrontational and make a huge mess so you must take extreme measures when they don’t listen to you”.

The teacher

As you can see, the new teacher will start setting limits as soon as they enter their new classroom, even though the students are behaving when they first go in. Next, the teacher adopts an aggressive tone to say something along the lines of: “I won’t allow disturbances, provocations, or disrespect so don’t even think about it”.

Understandably, the students feel attacked and react by being confrontational. Thus, the prophecy fulfills itself.

As you can see, paying attention to how your assumptions and attributions to things work allows you to question your stories and their meanings. Only by developing more questions and building healthier realities will you be able to break a self-fulfilling prophecy.