Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Psychology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:08 Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
  • 2:05 The Pygmalion Effect
  • 3:16 Cognitive Error
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Self-fulfilling prophecies occur more often than you'd think. In this lesson, we discuss this phenomenon and explain how it's due to a cognitive error. We also go over some classic studies as well as real-life examples.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Have you ever woken up and just knew it was going to be a bad day? Sure enough, you stub your toe, people at work seem to be in a bad mood, and negative things just seem to happen. If so, you were likely experiencing a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person unknowingly causes a prediction to come true, due to the simple fact that he or she expects it to come true.

In other words, an expectation about a subject, such as a person or event, can affect our behavior towards that subject, which causes the expectation to be realized. For example, a high school volleyball coach expects freshmen to be less skilled, so she does not put them in to play very often. When she does put them in, they are rusty and don't do well, thereby fulfilling her expectations.

In one study regarding self-fulfilling prophecies, psychologists led some male college students to believe that a female student was attracted to them and others to believe that she was not attracted to them. The social psychologists later observed interactions between the men and the female in question. The woman was much more likely to act as if she was attracted to the first set of men. Why? Because the men who thought she was attracted to them acted in a way that seemed to lead her to actually be attracted to them.

You can think of the self-fulfilling prophecy as a circular pattern. Our actions toward others impact their beliefs about us, which dictates their actions towards us, which then reinforces our beliefs about ourselves. This, in turn, influences our actions towards others, which brings us back to the beginning of the cycle. This pattern can be negative, like the freshmen volleyball players example, but it can also be positive.

The Pygmalion Effect

One classic study conducted in the late 1960s demonstrates the power of a positive self-fulfilling prophecy, also known as the Pygmalion effect. Robert Rosenthal informed the teachers in one elementary school that five of the students in their class had been identified as 'academic spurters,' who would likely outperform their classmates during the remainder of the year. The teachers were told (falsely) that this had been determined by testing done earlier that year.

In reality, these five students were chosen completely at random, so there should have been no difference in the increase in their academic performance relative to the other students. However, by the end of the year, those five did outperform the other students. The teachers' expectations for the 'academic spurters' caused them to treat those students differently, providing better and more feedback, asking them more questions, etc. This resulted in better academic performance, thus fulfilling the prophecy of academic excellence that was made.

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Additional Activities

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Activities

Writing Prompt 1:

Self-fulfilling prophesies can be positive or negative. Research has shown, for example, that cultures that expect their elders to be forgetful have a higher percentage of older people reporting memory problems. On the other hand, coaches who are told that an average team is an exceptional team have players that outperform other average teams. Think about self-fulfilling prophesies that have affected your life. Write a 2–3 paragraph essay describing several of your own self-fulfilling prophesies and discuss whether you think that they had a positive or negative effect on your experience. For example, you may have an expectation that you will get all A's in school. This would be a positive self-fulfilling prophesy.

Writing Prompt 2:

Do you think that a person with negative self-fulfilling prophesies can shift his or her thinking to formulate positive self-fulfilling prophesies? Develop an intervention for people who are hamstrung by their own negative self-fulling prophesies, leading them to believe in the inevitability of negative outcomes. For example, you could teach them to identify when they are creating a negative self-fulfilling prophesy, and you could suggest substituting positive self-talk when that occurs. Write a paragraph or two about the intervention that you would develop.

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