What Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

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What Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

A self-fulfilling prophecy is an expectation or belief that can influence your behaviors, thus causing the belief to come true.

The idea behind a self-fulfilling prophecy, also known as the Pygmalion effect, is that your belief about what will happen drives the actions that make that outcome ultimately come to pass.

If you expect everything to go wrong, you might put in less effort or fail to take steps that could turn things around, which means that expecting the worst brings out the worst.

Signs of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

There are a few key signs that you might be caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you find yourself:

  • Frequently making pessimistic predictions about the future
  • Ruminating on bad experiences from the past
  • Focusing primarily on the negatives in any given situation
  • Believing that your negative predictions are inevitable and that you have no control over them

Self-fulfilling prophecies are not always negative. Sometimes, positive expectations can inspire actions that help you become more successful in achieving your goals. But when your self-fulfilling prophecy is based on negative expectations, it can hold you back and prevent you from reaching your full potential.

Recap

Pessimism and rumination can be signs of self-fulfilling prophecies, but these beliefs can also be positive and help motivate you to achieve your goals.

Types of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

There are two primary types of self-fulfilling prophecies:

  • Self-imposed prophecies are based on your own expectations
  • Other-imposed prophesies are based on what other people expect to happen

Examples

Some examples of self-imposed prophecies include believing you will do poorly on an exam and then failing the test, or thinking that you won't get the job and then not getting it. In both cases, your beliefs influenced your behavior and performances, contributing to the expected outcome coming to pass.

Reading your horoscope and believing you will have a terrible day based on its predictions is an example of other-imposed prophecies. Parents who believe their children will not succeed academically may cause their predictions to come true by placing little emphasis on academics.

Self-fulfilling prophecies can be much more serious, however. Such expectations can contribute to how you expect other people to behave, which can play a part in stereotypes, racism, and discrimination.

Uses of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

When using self-fulfilling prophecies to achieve goals, it's essential to have a positive outlook and to focus on the actions you can take to bring about the desired outcome. Believing that you can succeed is an essential part of making it happen.

In addition, you may find it helpful to identify self-imposed prophecies that might be holding you back and work to change your thinking. If you keep expecting things to go wrong, you will likely sabotage yourself. However, if you start believing things will turn out well, you'll be more likely to take action and bring about positive change in your life.

It's also important to be aware of other-imposed prophecies. Pay attention to the expectations of those around you and how they might influence your behavior. Be sure to stay true to your goals and beliefs, even in the face of others' expectations.

Impact of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Self-fulfilling prophecies can significantly impact behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and motivation. When it comes to self-fulfilling prophecies, there are a few key points to keep in mind.

School, Healthcare, and Other Areas

Research suggests that people's expectations can influence outcomes in research, courtroom, classroom, business, and healthcare settings. People's expectations can impact the responses of study participants, jurors, students, employees, and patients.

Substance Use and Treatment

One study found that parental beliefs about the value of their involvement in an adolescent substance use program predicted their children's alcohol use. Such results are an example of how other-imposed prophecies can influence outcomes.

Researchers have also found that self-fulfilling prophecies affect the subjective experience of consuming alcohol in ways that are not directly related to the physiological effects of alcohol.

For example, people who expect to embarrass themselves or become aggressive after drinking is more likely to engage in those behaviors.

Social Functioning

Holding negative social expectations about peers has also been shown to be a long-term predictor of social functioning. Such findings suggest that early self-fulfilling prophecies that emerge during adolescence can continue to affect behavior well into adulthood.

Motivation and Self-Esteem

In addition, self-fulfilling prophecies can significantly impact motivation and self-esteem. When you don't believe in your ability to succeed, it can be challenging to maintain motivation and stay focused on your goals. Not believing in your ability to succeed can also lead to feelings of insecurity, doubt, and poor self-efficacy.

Recap

Self-fulfilling beliefs can have a significant impact on outcomes in various settings, including school, work, and health.

How to Avoid Negative Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

There are several things that people can do to avoid damaging self-fulfilling prophecies:

  • Be aware of your own self-imposed prophecies: It is essential to be mindful of the potential impact that expectations can have on your behavior. If you believe things will not go well, you're likely to act in a way that makes this outcome more likely.
  • Commit to your beliefs and goals: Stay true to your own goals and beliefs, even in the face of others' expectations.
  • Recognize how other people's expectations affect your self-beliefs: Pay attention to the expectations of those around you and how they might influence your behavior. Be sure to stay focused on your own goals, and don't let others dictate your actions.
  • Practice self-compassion: Don't beat yourself up when you don't meet your own expectations. Accept that you made a mistake and learn from it. Move on and focus on what you can do differently next time.

By understanding the effects of self-fulfilling prophecies, you can work to counteract any negative thinking patterns that might be holding you back. Be proactive in identifying any beliefs or expectations that might limit your potential and take steps to change them. With practice, you can learn to break and avoid negative self-fulfilling prophecies and achieve your goals.

Summary

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a situation where someone's expectations about a particular situation cause that situation to come true. It demonstrates that having a positive outlook and focusing on the actions you can take to bring about the desired outcome is important for success.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Madon S, Scherr KC, Spoth R, Guyll M, Willard J, Vogel DL. The role of the self-fulfilling prophecy in young adolescents' responsiveness to a substance use prevention program. J Appl Soc Psychol. 20131;43(9):1784-1798. doi:10.1111/jasp.12126

  3. Lee CM, Fairlie AM, Ramirez JJ, Patrick ME, Luk JW, Lewis MA. Self-fulfilling prophecies: Documentation of real-world daily alcohol expectancy effects on the experience of specific positive and negative alcohol-related consequences. Psychol Addict Behav. 2020;34(2):327-334. doi:10.1037/adb0000537

  4. Loeb EL, Hessel ET, Allen JP. The self-fulfilling prophecy of adolescent social expectations. Int J Behav Dev. 2016;40(6):555-564. doi:10.1177/0165025415618274

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.