Self-fulfilling prophecy

“What I predict comes true.”

Definition

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that comes true in virtue of the fact that it has been made, because the beliefs that arise from the prediction guide that person’s behaviour. The person interprets events or the intentions of others through the lens of this prediction, and behaves accordingly. This ultimately leads to the fulfillment of the prediction. A self-fulfilling prophecy can have both beneficial and unfortunate consequences, depending on the prediction made. This cognitive bias can affect ourselves or — through our behaviour — the people around us. Indeed, since our beliefs influence our interpretation of the world and guide our behaviour, and since these may have been modified as a result of our prediction, our interactions with others may be affected. These changes in our way of being or acting would not have happened if the initial prediction had not been made [1, 2].

Example

You perceive that your partner is acting aloof. So, you come to believe that your partner no longer loves you and will soon end your relationship, that it is only a matter of time before this happens. A few weeks go by and your prediction comes true. Your initial observation of aloofness gave rise to your assumption that your relationship was going to end soon. Consequently, your behaviour with your partner changed: you acted less cordially in your relationship because of your concern about your prediction. Your partner’s behaviour then also changed negatively, in response to your change in attitude. This sequence of events therefore precipitated your breakup. The prophecy you made changed the way you acted, which then led to the end of the relationship.  It was your prediction and its impact on your and your partner’s behaviour that precipitated it: the prophecy was thus fulfilled [3].

Explanation

This cognitive bias is caused by beliefs engendered by a prediction. These beliefs lead us to have expectations about the sequence of events that will follow our prediction. Since our beliefs are the basis of our behaviour and state of mind, they ultimately lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy. The way we act, and the way we interpret the events and actions of others is what causes predictions to come true [2].

Consequences

The consequences can be observed both at the individual and collective level. For example, the beliefs that we hold about what old age should be, and the way we see ourselves in the future based on these beliefs, determine a more positive or more negative trajectory of our aging. The consequences from a collective point of view can be illustrated through the repercussions of stereotypes. For example, due to negative beliefs that a manager maintains about the supposed lower productivity of employees from minority communities, she invests less in her relationship with these employees than with those of the majority group. Employees from minority communities, with less help and attention from the manager, are generally less involved in their work, which confirms the manager's prophecy that they will be less productive [4, 5].

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • Become aware of the existence of this bias and determine whether the possible consequences of our beliefs, which flow from our prediction, are desirable or not.

  • Become aware that the bias of self-fulfilling prophecy impacts our relationships with others, especially through the stereotypes that we maintain.

How is this bias measured?

The effects of self-fulfilling prophecy are usually evaluated longitudinally, that is, over the long term with more than one measurement. For example, using a questionnaire, we assess the expectations (predictions) of a teacher for each of his students at the start of the year. We also measure empirically, using a questionnaire, students' sense of personal effectiveness, that is to say, their level of confidence at the start of the year. We then observe whether the teacher's behaviour varies according to his expectations of his students, for example by calculating the frequency of encouragement given to each student. Finally, at the end of the year, students' sense of personal effectiveness is measured again. Researchers consider it a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers’ expectations influence their encouraging behaviours and these behaviours then affect students' sense of self-efficacy, as well as their academic performance.

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:

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This bias has social or individual repercussions:

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This bias is empirically demonstrated:

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References

[1] Merton, Robert K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. The Antioch Review, 8(2): 193-210.


[2] Madon, Stephanie, Jennifer Willard, Max Guyll, & Kyle C. Scherr (2011). Self-fulfilling prophecies: Mechanisms, power, and links to social problems. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(8): 578‑590.


[3] Downey, Geraldine, Antonio. L. Freitas, Benjamin Michaelis, & Hala Khouri (1998). The self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationships: Rejection sensitivity and rejection by romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2): 545-560.


[4] Wurm, Susanne, Lisa. M. Warner, Jochen P. Ziegelmann, Julia K. Wolff, & Benjamin Schüz (2013). How do negative self-perceptions of aging become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Psychology and Aging, 28(4), 1088-1097.


[5] Glover, Dylan, Amanda Pallais, William Pariente (2017). Discrimination as a self-fulfilling prophecy: Evidence from French grocery stores. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 132(3): 1219–1260.

Tags

Individual level, Interpersonal level, Intergroup level, Anchoring heuristic, Need for cognitive consonance

Related biases

  • Self-defeating prophecy

  • Pygmalion effect

  • Golem effect

Author

Coralie Niquay, Undergraduate student in Cognitive Neuroscience, Université de Montréal

Magali Vigneault, Undergraduate student in Cognitive Neuroscience, Université de Montréal.

Translated from French to English by Susan D. Renaud.

How to cite this entry

Niquay, C. & Vigneault, M. (2021). Self-fulfilling prophecy, trans. S. D. Renaud. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts : A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 3. Online: www.shortcogs.com

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