What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

self-fulfilling prophecy

How a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a false belief that leads to its own fulfillment, and it involves three events (Madon et al., 2011):

  • You must hold a false belief about another person
  • You must treat the person in a way that matches your false belief
  • The person must respond to the treatment he receives by confirming the false belief

What is a false belief?

A false belief is a belief that does not match another person’s belief about himself. A false belief can either be positive or negative. For example, you might hold a belief about another person that he is capable, or not capable, of doing something.

You then begin to treat the person in a way that matches your (false) belief, and the person may begin to respond to your treatment by confirming your (false) belief. The person may begin to either belief in himself or doubt himself, depending on the treatment he receives by you.

Taken together, a self-fulfilling prophecy is powerful psychological effect where your expectations of another person’s abilities influence how that person views himself.

Self-fulfilling prophecies were originally examined in school settings. Robert Rosenthal (1973) examined how teachers influence students’ school performance. Rosenthal found that teachers are likely to treat students in accordance with their false beliefs by:

“creating a warm and friendly environment for students, providing students with opportunities to develop their skills, providing students with opportunities to practice their skills, and providing students with performance-based feedback” (Madon et al., 2011, p. 580).

Why do others’ false beliefs influence how we think of ourselves?

According to the self-verification theory (Swann, 1987), people have a basic desire to confirm their self-concepts, i.e. the way they view themselves. The self-verification theory suggests that it is existentially pleasing to confirm one’s self-concept, even when it is negative.

For example, we verify other people’s false beliefs by acting in accordance with them, and this gives us a firm sense of identity or self. In closing, we try to live up to some kind of role, i.e. a role that we have put ourselves in with the help from others.

Image: Will Lion