A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person’s expectations about a situation come true due to changes in their own behavior. It is a psychological phenomenon that can play a role in mental health.

Self-fulfilling prophecies occur due to a person’s beliefs about what will happen in the future. This prediction or assumption then guides how they act, which makes the expected outcome more likely.

For example, if someone thinks they will do well in a driving test, they might approach the test with greater confidence, which may help them pass. Conversely, if they believe they will fail, they might not study or give up easily, leading to poor performance.

The concept of self-fulfilling prophecies shows the cause-and-effect between a person’s beliefs and outcomes.

This article explores the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies, types, stages, and examples.

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A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when a person’s expectations or beliefs about a situation lead to actions that make those expectations happen.

The phenomenon bridges the gap between mental perception and physical reality, demonstrating how beliefs can shape actions and outcomes.

The sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” in 1948, but other sociologists and psychologists have since expanded on the theory.

There are several types of self-fulfilling prophecy, including:

Self-imposed vs. other-imposed

Self-fulfilling prophecies may be self-imposed or other-imposed. Self-imposed prophecies stem from an individual’s own expectations and behavior.

In contrast, other-imposed prophecies result from the expectations and behaviors of others. These prophecies may be particularly influential when they come from people whose opinions the individual values highly, such as family members, teachers, employers, or peers.

Positive vs. negative

Self-fulfilling prophecies can have positive or negative beliefs at their core.

When positive beliefs lead to better results, this is known as the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson coined this term in the 1960s, naming it after a Greek myth in which a sculptor brings his statue to life as a result of his high expectations.

In the 1980s, Rosenthal and other psychologists wrote about the opposite phenomenon, which they called the Golem effect. This is when low expectations bring out worse results.

In Jewish mythology, golems are helpers or protectors made of clay or mud. In one story, a golem becomes corrupt and violent, forcing its creator to destroy it.

A self-fulfilling prophecy has five key stages:

  1. Formation of a belief or expectation: An individual or group forms a belief about a situation, themselves, or another person. This belief may be the product of past experiences, societal norms, or input from others.
  2. Behavioral adjustment: Once a belief is in place, it influences behavior. Individuals may alter how they approach a task or social situation.
  3. Impact on the environment and others: The changes in behavior can affect both the situation and any other people involved.
  4. Realization of the expectation: This is the culmination of the self-fulfilling prophecy, when the outcomes match the initial expectations.
  5. Reinforcement of the original belief: When a self-fulfilling prophecy comes true, it strengthens the belief in the accuracy of the original predictions, making it more likely that the individual will continue to act based on similar expectations in the future. This can create a cycle.

Here are some examples of self-fulfilling prophecies:

  • Teaching: A teacher believes a student has promise and so unconsciously provides them with more attention, feedback, and opportunities, which in turn boosts that student’s performance. This fulfills the teacher’s original expectations.
  • Relationships: An individual expects rejection in romantic relationships. This causes anxiety, which leads them to act withdrawn or overly cautious, which might push potential partners away. The result strengthens their fear of rejection.
  • Managing employees: A manager expects a certain type of employee to do well at a task while expecting another type of employee to do badly at the same task. This leads them to delegate the task to only some employees, helping them gain confidence while the rest cannot. This reinforces the manager’s bias.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are relevant to mental health because they can be part of thinking processes that lead to distress, anxiety, or feelings of hopelessness.

For example, a person with depression may expect bad things to happen. This may result in a lack of motivation to try to prevent bad things from happening, leading to negative outcomes.

Similarly, someone with social anxiety may assume others do not like them, and so avoid talking at social events. This makes it difficult to make friends, reinforcing the initial belief.

These are cognitive distortions or “thinking errors.” Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that seem true but are actually inaccurate. The first example comes from catastrophizing or assuming the worst will happen. The second is an example of mindreading, or the idea a person knows what others will think.

This is not to say that mental health conditions are the fault of the individual. Many factors contribute to mental health, and cognitive distortions do not develop on their own.

However, learning to recognize thinking errors and the way they shape behavior can be part of the treatment. Over time, talk therapy can help people replace unhelpful beliefs and expectations with more balanced, realistic ones.

Learn more about cognitive distortions.

The impact of self-fulfilling prophecies goes beyond individuals. It can also affect whole groups. In healthcare, this can contribute to health inequity.

For example, if a doctor believes a certain group of people will not adhere to a treatment plan, they may consciously or unconsciously spend less time explaining it to them, or communicate less effectively. This could lead to the outcome they expected.

Algorithms that predict health outcomes can also have a similar problem. If the data the algorithm uses is biased to begin with, this leads to biased predictions, reinforcing existing inequities.

These are just a few examples of the way in which self-fulfilling prophecies may affect the health of oppressed groups. Learn more about biases in healthcare and health inequity.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is when expectations about the future affect peoples’ actions, making those expectations more likely to come true. The expectations may be positive or negative and may come from an individual or the people around them.

This concept of self-fulfilling prophecies highlights the powerful relationship between expectations and outcomes. Understanding how they work can help a person identify how their own beliefs have influenced their life.

Self-fulfilling prophecies also have wide-ranging implications for parenting, education, workplaces, personal relationships, and healthcare.