Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Definition
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a process through which someone’s expectations about a situation or another person leads to the fulfillment of those expectations. Thus, the expectancy becomes a cause, so that what is expected comes true because it was expected. The process includes three steps: (1) A perceiver forms an expectation of a situation or target person, (2) the perceiver’s expectations affects how he or she behaves in the situation or treats the target person, and (3) the situation or the target person is affected by the perceiver’s behavior in a way that confirms the perceiver’s initial expectation.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Background and History
The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy was initially introduced by a sociologist, Robert K. Merton. In Merton’s conception, a self-fulfilling prophecy applied to social as well as nonsocial phenomena. For example, Merton discusses how a self-fulfilling prophecy could lead a stable bank to experience failure. Imagine that a group of individuals comes to believe that a bank is on the verge of bankruptcy. As a result, those individuals withdraw their savings from the bank. In turn, other depositors start to worry that their funds are not safe and consequently withdraw their funds. In the end, many depositors withdrawing their funds actually leads to the bank becoming bankrupt. Therefore, the individuals’ expectations influenced their own behavior and ultimately the very situation about which they were concerned. The type of self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to a bank failure is one that depends on the beliefs and actions of many individuals. However, most of the social psychological research on self-fulfilling prophecies has focused on how one person’s belief about another person leads to confirmation of that belief.
One of the best-known studies that demonstrates the effect of self-fulfilling prophecies at the interpersonal level was conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in the late 1960s. In this study, the researchers led classroom teachers to believe that some of their students were “potential bloomers,” who would show substantial IQ gains during the school year. In actuality, the students labeled as “bloomers” were randomly chosen by the researchers and were not really different from their classmates. So the teachers’ beliefs about the potential bloomers were initially false. Nonetheless, at the end of the school year, these bloomers had higher gains in their IQ compared with the other students. The teachers’ expectations that bloomers would experience IQ gains caused them to treat these students differently. For example, teachers were more likely to give feedback to the bloomers and challenge them more than they did their other students. These differences in the teachers’ behavior led these students to perform better. This study was important in demonstrating that individuals may unwittingly cause outcomes that they expect by changing their own behavior and thereby influencing the behavior of others.
The early research on the self-fulfilling nature of teacher expectations on student achievement faced criticism about the ethics of the research and the very existence of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Experimental laboratory research, however, convincingly demonstrated that people can subtly affect the behavior of others because of their own expectations and that these self-fulfilling prophecies do occur in many situations. The experimental studies on self-fulfilling prophecies typically led perceivers to expect something of a target and then measured the target’s behavior. Because the expectations perceivers held for the targets were initially false, if the behavior of the target confirmed the expectation, this was taken as evidence of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, perceivers might be led to believe that a target person with whom they would interact was physically attractive by showing the perceiver a picture of an attractive person. Because people tend to believe that physically attractive individuals are friendly and outgoing, perceivers would expect an attractive interaction partner to be sociable. Perceivers would then interact with someone who was objectively physically attractive or not. In general, perceivers acted in ways that elicited the type of behavior they expected from their interaction partners. So, for example, perceivers were themselves more friendly and outgoing if they believed that they were interacting with an attractive person rather than if they thought they were interacting with an unattractive person. In turn, targets who experienced friendliness from the perceiver responded by being warm and friendly, regardless of their objective levels of physical attractiveness. These types of laboratory studies were important in demonstrating that self-fulfilling prophecies do occur, even in situations in which people do not know each other very well or have repeated contact, as a teacher might have with students. Recent research has even demonstrated that perceivers’ expectations may lead to self-fulfilling prophecies even when perceivers are unaware or not consciously thinking of their beliefs. Something in the environment may bring to mind a perceiver’s expectation, and even if the perceiver is not actively thinking about the belief, it might influence his or her behavior, and the behavior of individuals with whom they interact, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies.
Although false expectations can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, some researchers questioned whether these effects occur in the real world and how powerful they are. For example, do teacher expectations that have not been created by researchers influence student performance in real classrooms? Although self-fulfilling prophecies are not as powerful in the real world as they are in the laboratory, perceivers’ expectations do have a small effect on targets’ behaviors. But, in some situations perceivers’ expectations are unlikely to lead to the target confirming those expectations. If a person knows that others have negative expectations about him or her, he or she may work hard to disconfirm, rather than confirm, the expectations. The result might thus be a self-defeating prophecy, the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Importance
Self-fulfilling prophecies demonstrate that people often play an active role in shaping, and even creating, their own social realities. Self-fulfilling prophecies can influence many interactions and situations, but the impact of these prophecies is particularly evident in two major areas: (1) stereotyping and perceptions of members of groups that are negatively viewed in society and (2) the effects of teacher expectations on student achievement.
Stereotypes are beliefs about the traits, personalities, and abilities that characterize the typical individual of a group, and these beliefs are often difficult to change. Self-fulfilling prophecies may be one reason that this is the case. As an example, consider the case of women. One component of the stereotype of women is that the typical group member is dependent. A perceiver who expects women to be dependent may be especially likely to treat women in ways that elicit dependence. For example, a perceiver may offer help to a woman with a flat tire (even if help is not requested, or is unnecessary), and the woman may respond by accepting the offer. In such an interaction, the woman depended on another person for help, and therefore the perceiver’s stereotype of the group is confirmed. Because stereotypes are usually widely shared within a society, these types of stereotype confirming interactions are likely to occur repeatedly in the society and thus have a much stronger impact than the idiosyncratic expectations that one individual has about another individual. But the influence of self-fulfilling prophecy on stereotypes is even more pernicious when one considers that individuals do not need to be actively or consciously thinking about a stereotype for it to affect their behavior. Just being aware of a stereotype may lead the belief to automatically come to mind and influence the behavior of the perceiver when he or she interacts with members of the stereotyped group.
The second application of research on self-fulfilling prophecies harkens back to the original research of Rosenthal and Jacobson on the effect of teachers’ expectation on student achievement. Rosenthal and Jacobson showed that high expectations from teachers can improve student performance, but the converse is also true; teachers’ negative expectations may impair student performance. Students from some ethnic minority groups and those with low socioeconomic status tend to achieve less academically than do their White and more economically advantaged students. These outcome differences may be partly due to teachers’ expectations. Teachers’ expectations do affect performance in real classrooms. Research has shown that self-fulfilling prophecies have stronger effects on poor and ethnic minority students, about whom teachers are likely to have the most negative expectations. So, it is important for teachers to think about their expectations for their students because these expectations have real consequences for important outcomes.
- Jussim, L., Eccles, J., & Madon, S. (1996). Social perception, social stereotypes, and teacher expectations: Accuracy and the quest for the powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 28, pp. 281-388). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectations and student intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Snyder, M., Tanke, E. D., & Berscheid, E. (1977). Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 656-666.