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Beware of Your Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

It may be negatively impacting your behaviors toward yourself and others.

Key points

  • A self-fulfilling prophecy is a set of beliefs and expectations that can negatively or positively influence our actions.
  • Research on self-fulfilling prophecies such as the Pygmalion and placebo effects finds that beliefs and expectations can be influential.
  • To avoid being negatively influenced by our beliefs and expectations, we need to react and act from a conscious state of mind.

Do you ever wake up and everything seems to go wrong? You drop your toothbrush with the toothpaste on it, shampoo gets in your eye, and you top it off with spilling your cup of coffee. You proclaim that the rest of your day is doomed. It starts off a series of mishaps prompted by absentmindedness and clumsiness.

When our beliefs and expectations influence our behavior at the subconscious level, we are enacting what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.[i] It’s when a person unknowingly causes a prediction to come true, due to the fact that they expect it to come true.

You may unconsciously affirm your beliefs by having certain attitudes, ignoring the positive, amplifying the negative, and behaving in ways that contribute and strengthen your predictions.

In 1948, Robert K. Merton coined the term self-fulfilling prophecy to describe “a false definition of the situation evoking a behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.”[ii]

There are two types of self-fulfilling prophecies: Self-imposed prophecies occur when your own expectations influence your actions. Other-imposed prophecies occur when others’ expectations influence your behavior.[iii] All opinions you value can cause this prophecy. It can occur in a circular pattern and can be positive or negative.

When interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecies are getting enacted, we see a cycle of[iv]:

Harboring a belief or set of beliefs about ourselves -> The beliefs influence our actions towards others -> Our actions toward others, shaped by our beliefs about them, impact their beliefs about us -> Their beliefs cause them to act in ways consistent with those beliefs towards us, which reinforces our initial beliefs about ourselves. This cycle perpetuates itself and could cause an enactment of behaviors driven by unconscious motivators, inevitably leading to dissatisfying fractured relationships.

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect is a type of other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecy that states the way you treat someone has a direct impact on how that person acts. If another person thinks something will happen, they may consciously or unconsciously make it happen through their actions or inaction.

In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobsen conducted an experiment to see whether student achievement could be self-fulfilling based on the expectations of their teachers. Findings from this experiment showed that teacher expectations of students influenced student performance more than any differences in talent or intelligence.[v] The other-imposed expectations imposed on the students by the teachers are internalized by the students and become part of their self-concept and identity, and they act accordingly to their internal beliefs about themselves.

These results were replicated in college-aged students as well. Studies conducted in algebra classes at The Air Force Academy, engineering students, and many other universities replicated these results.[vi]

The Placebo Effect

An example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the placebo effect, when a person experiences beneficial outcomes because they expect an inactive “identical” substance or treatment to work, even though it has no known medical effect.[vii] This occurs in subjects of scientific studies or clinical trials. In these trials, even when the participants did not receive any meaningful treatment, the belief that they did affects the “treatment” that they experience. Research on the placebo effect has proven that belief can be very impactful.

Anxiety and Depression

The cyclical nature of self-fulfilling prophecies can play a role in developing and deepening anxiety and depression. A person experiencing anxiety may identify with and hold the belief that they’re unsafe, a worrier, and/or too emotionally sensitive. Whereas an individual struggling with depression may identify and hold the belief that they’re worthless, unlovable/unlikable, and/or ineffective.

Strongly holding onto and embodying these beliefs can impact directly on behavior and interactions with others. An individual who thinks of themselves as too emotional may hold back from asserting their needs, expressing their feelings, and resist being or putting themselves in emotionally vulnerable situations. When they hold back, they may find themselves in circumstances where they’re having intense emotional reactions, are being told by others that they’re “too reactive” or “emotional”, and their relationships are unfulfilling because they lack depth and connection.

How to Avoid Being Negatively Influenced by a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Some tips to remain in and react from a conscious state include:

  1. Become aware of how you identify and the beliefs you carry about yourself. For example, I’m lazy: “I accept mediocrity and don’t put much effort into most things.”
  2. Gain insight into the beliefs you carry about others. For example, people are not trustworthy and tend to be self-serving.
  3. Identify patterns of behavior. For example, you tend to avoid situations where you’ll experience “failure.”
  4. Acknowledge and lean into your emotions. For example, instead of shying away from your worry, notice it, label it as “worry,” and become curious as to your thoughts, feelings, and potential reactions to it.
  5. Surrender your need to be in control and enhance your curiosity and flexibility. If you allow yourself to be open and to see and experience things more expansively, you’re more likely to function on a conscious level, and less likely to be driven by habits, impulses, and repeated patterns of behavior. You provide yourself the opportunity to expand your thinking and inevitably your behavior.
  6. Reframe your language. Try to avoid using absolute or disempowering terms such as never, always, and I can`t. Instead, replace them with neutral or positive words and phrases, such as I will, I can, and I`ll give it my best.
  7. Role play situations in your mind or with others. You could practice being with the part that wants to repeat or play out patterns of behavior and the part that doesn’t. It helps with processing thoughts and feelings and problem-solving how you want to act based on the insight.
  8. Work toward a growth mindset. If you shift your mindset, you can be more present and conscious, and make choices with more intentionality. For ways to facilitate a growth mindset, see my prior Psychology Today post, “25 Ways Toward A Growth Mindset: Enhance Your Relationships and Personal Growth.”

Be mindful of your beliefs and assumptions which can impact your behavior and those around you. A self-fulfilling prophecy can also be positive and work to benefit you. Work on fortifying attitudes and perceptions that lead to positive and fulfilling outcomes and relationships. From here on in, try to intentionally enter your days with confidence and expect greatness and success. Let’s see what happens!

Here is a Empowerment Guided Meditation led by me. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more interviews and guided meditations.


Blog as published in Psychology Today.

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