How Self-Fulfilling Prophecies Shape Interpersonal Communication

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  • 0:01 Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
  • 0:52 How It Works
  • 2:40 Self-Fulfilling…
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy and discover how it relates to communication. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Look into my crystal ball. I am going to predict your future. I foresee that you will do well on the quiz at the end of this lesson. Actually, because I just predicted it, it's more likely to come true. The phenomenon of a prediction that causes itself to come true is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. These are well documented, but the magic of self-fulfilling prophecies is limited only to things that humans directly control. For example, I can predict that it will rain tomorrow, but I don't actually have any control over that. I do, however, have control over my own communication habits and my interaction with other people. So, in this realm, whether I'm aware of it or not, I can actually predict the future. Just like magic.

How It Works

At its most basic, a self-fulfilling prophesy is just something that comes true because we believe it will come true. Say that you expect you will get a raise. Well, because you expect to get a raise, you start working harder, putting in extra effort and go out of your way to be friendly to your boss. Your boss wasn't planning on giving you a raise, but because you started being a better employee, you got the raise. Your prediction came true because of a positive feedback loop between belief and behavior, or a loop in which two factors mutually increase each other. Your belief impacted your behavior, which, in turn, impacted your belief that the prediction was accurate.

It's important to note that a self-fulfilling prophesy does not come true because you intentionally set out to make it true; rather it happens through subconscious changes to your behavior. This phenomenon has been a source fascination dating back to ancient Greece and India, when scholars first documented it and wrote hypotheses about how it works. The term itself, as well as our modern, scientific definition, comes from the mid-20th century sociologist Robert K. Merton. In 1948, he defined the self-fulfilling prophesy by demonstrating that human behaviors are determined by perception and the meaning we give to situations. Basically, as we perceive reality around us, we have to decide what it means to us. Is a situation good or bad? How do we feel about it? How do we respond to it? When we convince ourselves that a situation has a certain meaning, our behavior is likely to encourage that meaning, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Communication

Self-fulfilling prophecies can occur in pretty much any area where humans are involved. One of the most obvious, however, is communication. Communication is one of the most important parts of our daily lives, and a lot of it is a subconscious reflex, so it's ripe for self-fulfilling prophesies.

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