Self-fulfilling prophecy

Self-fulfilling prophecy refers to the socio-psychological phenomenon of someone "predicting" or expecting something, and this “prediction” or expectation comes true simply because one believes it will,[1] and their resulting behaviors align to fulfil those beliefs. This suggests peoples' beliefs influence their actions. The principle behind this phenomenon is people create consequences regarding people or events, based on their previous knowledge toward that specific subject. Additionally, self-fulfilling prophecy is applicable to negative and positive outcomes.

American sociologist William Isaac Thomas was the first to discover this phenomenon. In 1928 he developed the Thomas theorem (also known as the Thomas dictum), stating,

In other words, the consequence will come to fruition based on how one interprets the situation. Using Thomas' idea, another American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, coined the term self-fulfilling prophecy, popularizing the idea “...a belief or expectation, correct or incorrect, could bring about a desired or expected outcome.”[1]


Merton applied this concept to a fictional situation. In his book Social Theory and Social Structure, he uses the example of a bank run to show how self-fulfilling thoughts can make unwanted situations happen. He mentions how a number of people falsely believe the bank was going to file for bankruptcy. Because of this false fear, many people decide to go to the bank and ask for all of their cash at once. These actions cause the bank to indeed go bankrupt because banks rarely have the amount of cash on hand to satisfy a large number of customers asking for all of their deposited cash at once.

Merton concludes this example with the analysis, “The prophecy of collapse led to its own fulfillment.”[3]

While Merton’s example focused on self-fulfilling prophecies within a business, his theory is also applicable to interpersonal communication since it is found to have a “potential for triggering self-fulfilling prophecy effects”[4] . This is due to the fact “that an individual decides whether or not to conform to the expectations of others.”[4] This makes people rely upon or fall into self-fulfilling thoughts since they are trying to satisfy other’s perceptions of them.

Self-fulfilling theory can be divided into two subsections, one would be the Pygmalion effect which is when “one person has expectations of another, changes her behavior in accordance with these expectations, and the object of the expectations then also changes her behavior as a result.”[4]

Additionally, Philosopher Karl Popper called the self-fulfilling prophecy the Oedipus effect:

One of the ideas I had discussed in The Poverty of Historicism was the influence of a prediction upon the event predicted. I had called this the "Oedipus effect", because the oracle played a most important role in the sequence of events which led to the fulfilment of its prophecy. … For a time I thought that the existence of the Oedipus effect distinguished the social from the natural sciences. But in biology, too—even in molecular biology—expectations often play a role in bringing about what has been expected.[5]

An early precursor of the concept appears in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "During many ages, the prediction, as it is usual, contributed to its own accomplishment" (chapter I, part II).


Examples abound in studies of cognitive dissonance theory and the related self-perception theory; people will often change their attitudes to come into line with what they profess publicly.[6]

Teacher expectations influence student academic performance.[7][8]:114 In the United States, the concept was broadly and consistently applied in the field of public education reform, following the "War on Poverty". Theodore Brameld noted: "In simplest terms, education already projects and thereby reinforces whatever habits of personal and cultural life are considered to be acceptable and dominant."[9] The effects of teacher attitudes, beliefs and values, affecting their expectations have been tested repeatedly.[10] Students may study more if they had a positive experience with their teacher.[8]:115 Or female students may perform worse if they expected their male instructor is a sexist.[11]

The phenomenon of the "inevitability of war" is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has received considerable study.[12]

The idea is similar to that discussed by the philosopher William James as "The Will to Believe." But James viewed it positively, as the self-validation of a belief. Just as, in Merton's example, the belief that a bank is insolvent may help create the fact, so too, on the positive side, confidence in the bank's prospects may help brighten them. Similarly, Stock-exchange panic episodes, and speculative bubble episodes, can be triggered with the belief that the stock will go down (or up), thus starting the selling/buying mass move, etc.

A more Jamesian example: a swain, convinced that the fair maiden must love him, may prove more effective in his wooing than he would had his initial prophecy been defeatist.

There is extensive evidence of "Interpersonal Expectation Effects", where the seemingly private expectations of individuals can predict the outcome of the world around them. The mechanisms by which this occurs are also reasonably well understood: it is simply that our own expectations change our behaviour in ways we may not notice and correct. In the case of the "Interpersonal Expectation Effects", others pick up on non-verbal behaviour, which affects their attitudes. A famous example includes a study where teachers were told arbitrarily that random students were "going to blossom". Oddly, those random students actually ended the year with significantly greater improvements.[13][14] Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968 Other specific examples discussed in psychology include:


In Canadian ice hockey, junior league players are selected based on skill, motor coordination, physical maturity, and other individual merit criteria. However, psychologist Robert Barnsley showed that in any elite group of hockey players, 40% are born between January and March, versus the approximately 25% as would be predicted by statistics. The explanation is that in Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1, and the players who are born in the first months of the year are older by 0–11 months, which at the preadolescent age of selection (nine or ten) manifests into an important physical advantage. The selected players are exposed to higher levels of coaching, play more games, and have better teammates. These factors make them actually become the best players, fulfilling the prophecy, while the real selection criterion was age.[15] The same relative age effect has been noticed in Belgian soccer after 1997, when the start of the selection year was changed from August 1 to January 1.[16]


Self-fulfilling prophecies are one of the main contributions to racial prejudice and vice versa. According to the Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity & Culture "Self-fulfilling prophecy makes it possible to highlight the tragic vicious circle which victimizes people twice: first, because the victim is stigmatized (STIGMA) with an inherent negative quality; and secondly, because he or she is prevented from disproving this quality."[17] To prove this, the author uses the example that Merton used in his book about how white workers expected that black people would be against the principles of trade unionism because white workers considered black workers to be “undisciplined in traditions of trade unionism and the art of collective bargain-ing.”[18] This prediction caused the event to happen (black workers would be against trade unionism), because this forecast became fact when all white people started to believe this and did not let the black workers get a job at any white men's business. Which made black workers unable to learn or approve the principles of trade unionism since they were not given the chance of working in a work environment where these principles where seen or experienced.  

In the article “The Accumulation of Stereotype-based self-fulfilling Prophecies.” The authors mention how teachers can encourage stereotype-based courses and can interact with students in a manner that encourages self-fulfilling thoughts. The example that was given was the one of a female student who seemed to do bad in math and her math teacher and counselor “channel her in the direction of confirming sex stereotypes”[19] By this the author means that the teachers never encouraged her to improve her abilities in math. Instead, the teacher and the counselor recommended classes that were dominated by females.

Literature, media, and the arts

In literature, self-fulfilling prophecies are often used as plot devices. They have been used in stories for millennia, but have gained a lot of popularity recently in the science fiction genre. They are typically used ironically, with the prophesied events coming to pass due to the actions of one trying to prevent the prophecy (a recent example would be the life of Anakin Skywalker, the fictional Jedi-turned-Sith Lord in George Lucas' Star Wars saga). They are also sometimes used as comic relief.


Many myths, legends, and fairy tales make use of this motif as a central element of narratives that are designed to illustrate inexorable fate, fundamental to the Hellenic world-view.[20] In a common motif, a child, whether newborn or not yet conceived, is prophesied to cause something that those in power do not want to happen. This may be the death of the powerful person; in more light-hearted versions, it is often the marriage of a poor or lower-class child to his own. The events come about, nevertheless, as a result of the actions taken to prevent them: frequently child abandonment sets the chain of events in motion.


The best-known example from Greek legend is that of Oedipus. Warned that his child would one day kill him, Laius abandoned his newborn son Oedipus to die, but Oedipus was found and raised by others, and thus in ignorance of his true origins. When he grew up, Oedipus was warned that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing his foster parents were his real parents, he left his home and travelled to Greece, eventually reaching the city where his biological parents lived. There, he got into a fight with a stranger, his real father, killed him and married his widow, Oedipus' real mother.

Although the legend of Perseus opens with the prophecy that he will kill his grandfather Acrisius, and his abandonment with his mother Danaë, the prophecy is only self-fulfilling in some variants. In some, he accidentally spears his grandfather at a competition—an act that could have happened regardless of Acrisius' response to the prophecy. In other variants, his presence at the games is explained by his hearing of the prophecy, so that his attempt to evade it does cause the prophecy to be fulfilled. In still others, Acrisius is one of the wedding guests when Polydectes tried to force Danaë to marry him, and when Perseus turns them to stone with the Gorgon's head; as Polydectes fell in love with Danaë because Acrisius abandoned her at sea, and Perseus killed the Gorgon as a consequence of Polydectes' attempt to get rid of Danaë's son so that he could marry her, the prophecy fulfilled itself in these variants.

Greek historiography provides a famous variant: when the Lydian king Croesus asked the Delphic Oracle if he should invade Persia, the response came that if he did, he would destroy a great kingdom. Assuming this meant he would succeed, he attacked—but the kingdom he destroyed was his own.[21] In such an example, the prophecy prompts someone to action because he is led to expect a favorable result; but he achieves another, disastrous result which nonetheless fulfills the prophecy.

When it was predicted that Cronos would be overthrown by his son, and usurp his throne as King of the Gods, Cronus ate his children, each shortly after they were born. When Zeus was born, Cronos was thwarted by Rhea, who gave him a stone to eat instead, sending Zeus to be raised by Amalthea. Cronos' attempt to avoid the prophecy made Zeus his enemy, ultimately leading to its fulfilment.


The story of Romulus and Remus is another example. According to legend, a man overthrew his brother, the king. He then ordered that his two nephews, Romulus and Remus, be drowned, fearing that they would someday kill him as he did to his brother. The boys were placed in a basket and thrown in the Tiber River. A wolf found the babies and she raised them. Later, a shepherd found the twins and named them Romulus and Remus. As teenagers, they found out who they were. They killed their uncle, fulfilling the prophecy.


A variation of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the self-fulfilling dream, which dates back to medieval Arabic literature. Several tales in the One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights, use this device to foreshadow what is going to happen, as a special form of literary prolepsis. A notable example is "The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream", in which a man is told in his dream to leave his native city of Baghdad and travel to Cairo, where he will discover the whereabouts of some hidden treasure. The man travels there and experiences misfortune after losing belief in the prophecy, ending up in jail, where he tells his dream to a police officer. The officer mocks the idea of foreboding dreams and tells the protagonist that he himself had a dream about a house with a courtyard and fountain in Baghdad where treasure is buried under the fountain. The man recognizes the place as his own house and, after he is released from jail, he returns home and digs up the treasure. In other words, the foreboding dream not only predicted the future, but the dream was the cause of its prediction coming true. A variant of this story later appears in English folklore as the "Pedlar of Swaffham".[22]

Another variation of the self-fulfilling prophecy can be seen in "The Tale of Attaf", where Harun al-Rashid consults his library (the House of Wisdom), reads a random book, "falls to laughing and weeping and dismisses the faithful vizier" Ja'far ibn Yahya from sight. Ja'far, "disturbed and upset flees Baghdad and plunges into a series of adventures in Damascus, involving Attaf and the woman whom Attaf eventually marries." After returning to Baghdad, Ja'far reads the same book that caused Harun to laugh and weep, and discovers that it describes his own adventures with Attaf. In other words, it was Harun's reading of the book that provoked the adventures described in the book to take place. This is an early example of reverse causality.[23] In the 12th century, this tale was translated into Latin by Petrus Alphonsi and included in his Disciplina Clericalis. In the 14th century, a version of this tale also appears in the Gesta Romanorum and Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.[24]


Self-fulfilling prophecies appear in classical Sanskrit literature. In the story of Krishna in the Indian epic Mahabharata, the ruler of the Mathura kingdom, Kansa, afraid of a prophecy that predicted his death at the hands of his sister Devaki's son, had her cast into prison where he planned to kill all of her children at birth. After killing the first six children, and Devaki's apparent miscarriage of the seventh, Krishna (the eighth son) was born. As his life was in danger he was smuggled out to be raised by his foster parents Yashoda and Nanda in the village of Gokula. Years later, Kansa learned about the child's escape and kept sending various demons to put an end to him. The demons were defeated at the hands of Krishna and his brother Balarama. Krishna, as a young man returned to Mathura to overthrow his uncle, and Kansa was eventually killed by his nephew Krishna. It was due to Kansa's attempts to prevent the prophecy that led to it coming true, thus fulfilling the prophecy.


Oleg of Novgorod was a Varangian prince who ruled over the Rus people during the early tenth century. As old East Slavic chronicles say, it was prophesied by the pagan priests that Oleg's stallion would be the source of Oleg's death. To avoid this he sent the horse away. Many years later he asked where his horse was, and was told it had died. He asked to see the remains and was taken to the place where the bones lay. When he touched the horse's skull with his boot a snake slithered from the skull and bit him. Oleg died, thus fulfilling the prophecy. In the Primary Chronicle, Oleg is known as the Prophet, ironically referring to the circumstances of his death. The story was romanticized by Alexander Pushkin in his celebrated ballad "The Song of the Wise Oleg". In Scandinavian traditions, this legend lived on in the saga of Orvar-Odd.

European fairy tales

Many fairy tales, such as The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs, The Fish and the Ring, The Story of Three Wonderful Beggars, or The King Who Would Be Stronger Than Fate, revolve about a prophecy that a poor boy will marry a rich girl (or, less frequently, a poor girl a rich boy).[25] This is story type 930 in the Aarne–Thompson classification scheme. The girl's father's efforts to prevent it are the reason why the boy ends up marrying her.

Another fairy tale occurs with older children. In The Language of the Birds, a father forces his son to tell him what the birds say: that the father would be the son's servant. In The Ram, the father forces his daughter to tell him her dream: that her father would hold an ewer for her to wash her hands in. In all such tales, the father takes the child's response as evidence of ill-will and drives the child off; this allows the child to change so that the father will not recognize his own offspring later and so offer to act as the child's servant.

In some variants of Sleeping Beauty, such as Sun, Moon, and Talia, the sleep is not brought about by a curse, but a prophecy that she will be endangered by flax (or hemp) results in the royal order to remove all the flax or hemp from the castle, resulting in her ignorance of the danger and her curiosity.


Shakespeare's Macbeth is another classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The three witches give Macbeth a prophecy that Macbeth will eventually become king, but afterwards, the offspring of his best friend will rule instead of his own. Macbeth tries to make the first half true while trying to keep his bloodline on the throne instead of his friend's. Spurred by the prophecy, he kills the king and his friend, something he, arguably, never would have done before. In the end, the evil actions he committed to avoid his succession by another's bloodline get him killed in a revolution.

The later prophecy by the first apparition of the witches that Macbeth should "Beware Macduff" is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Macbeth had not been told this, then he might not have regarded Macduff as a threat. Therefore, he would not have killed Macduff's family, and Macduff would not have sought revenge and killed Macbeth.


Similar to Oedipus above, a more modern example would be Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, or Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise and the Big Three in Percy Jackson & the Olympians - each attempted to take steps to prevent action against them which had been predicted could cause their downfall, but instead created the conditions leading to it. Another, less well-known, modern example occurred with the character John Mitchell on BBC Three's Being Human. The Disney television series That's So Raven stars Raven-Symoné as the title character with the ability to see into the future with a strange situation. The extreme steps that the character takes to prevent the situation are almost always what lead to it. In George R. R. Martin’s book series a Song of Ice and Fire, Cersei Lannister kills a friend of hers after hearing a prophecy, from Maggy the Frog, that said friend will soon die.

New Thought

The law of attraction is a typical example of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is the name given to the belief that "like attracts like" and that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, one can bring about positive or negative results.[26][27] According to this law, all things are created first by imagination, which leads to thoughts, then to words and actions. The thoughts, words and actions held in mind affect someone's intentions which makes the expected result happen. Although there are some cases where positive or negative attitudes can produce corresponding results (principally the placebo and nocebo effects), there is no scientific basis to the law of attraction.[28]

Causal loop

A self-fulfilling prophecy may be a form of causality loop, only when the prophecy can be said to be truly known to occur, since only then events in the future will be causing effects in the past. Otherwise, it would be a simple case of events in the past causing events in the future. Predestination does not necessarily involve a supernatural power, and could be the result of other "infallible foreknowledge" mechanisms.[29] Problems arising from infallibility and influencing the future are explored in Newcomb's paradox.[30] A notable fictional example of a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs in classical play Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus becomes the king of Thebes, whilst in the process unwittingly fulfills a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The prophecy itself serves as the impetus for his actions, and thus it is self-fulfilling.[31] The movie 12 Monkeys heavily deals with themes of predestination and the Cassandra complex, where the protagonist who travels back in time explains that he cannot change the past.[32]

See also


  1. Biggs, Michael, "Prophecy, Self-Fulfilling/Self-Defeating", Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Social Sciences, SAGE Publications, Inc., ISBN 9781412986892, retrieved 2019-08-02
  2. The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas. New York: Knopf, 1928: 571–572
  3. Merton, Robert King, 1910-2003. (1996). On social structure and science. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226520706. OCLC 34116334.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy", SpringerReference, Springer-Verlag, retrieved 2019-08-02
  5. Popper, Karl (1976). Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court. ISBN 978-0-87548-343-6. OCLC 2927208.
  6. Carrasco-Villanueva, M. A., El Efecto “Pricebo”: Cómo los precios pueden influenciar la percepción sobre la calidad del cannabis y sus implicaciones en las políticas de precios", Pensamiento Crítico, vol. 22, n. 2, pp 175-210
  7. Jussim, Lee; Harber, Kent D. (2005). "Teacher expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies: knowns and unknowns, resolved and unresolved controversies". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 9 (2): 131–155. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0902_3. ISSN 1088-8683. PMID 15869379.
  8. Myers, David G. (2010). Social psychology (Tenth ed.). New York, NY. ISBN 9780073370668. OCLC 667213323.
  9. Brameld, T. (1972). "Education as self-fulfilling prophecy". Phi Beta Kappa. 54 (1): 8–11, 58–61 [p. 9]. Quoted by Wilkins (1976), p. 176.
  10. Wilkins, William E. (1976). "The Concept of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy". Sociology of Education. 49 (2): 175–183. doi:10.2307/2112523. ISSN 0038-0407. JSTOR 2112523.
  11. Adams, Glenn; Garcia, Donna M.; Purdie-Vaughns, Valerie; Steele, Claude M. (September 2006). "The detrimental effects of a suggestion of sexism in an instruction situation". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 42 (5): 602–615. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2005.10.004. ISSN 0022-1031.
  12. Allport, G. (1950). "The role of expectancy". In Cantrill, H. (ed.). The Tensions That Cause Wars. Urbana: University of Illinois. pp. 43–78.
  13. Rosenthal, Robert (2003). "Covert communication in laboratories, classrooms, and the truly real world" (PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science. Blackwell. 12 (5): 151–154. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.t01-1-01250. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  14. Rosenthal, Robert; Jacobson, Lenore (2003). Pygmalion in the Classroom. Crown House. ISBN 9781904424062.
  15. Gladwell, Malcolm (2008). "1 – The Matthew Effect". Outliers. Little, Brown and Company. pp. 20–25. ISBN 978-0-316-01792-3. Lay summary.
  16. Helsen, WF; Starkes, JL; Van Winckel, J (2000-11-01). "Effect of a change in selection year on success in male soccer players". American Journal of Human Biology. 12 (6): 729–735. doi:10.1002/1520-6300(200011/12)12:6<729::AID-AJHB2>3.0.CO;2-7. PMID 11534065.
  17. Citation error. See inline comment how to fix.
  18. Guha, Martin (2004). "The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science (3rd edition)2004417Edited by W. Edward Craighead and Charles B. Nemeroff. The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science (3rd edition). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley 2004. vii + 1,112 pp., ISBN: 0 471 22036 1 £78.50/$150 Also available as an e‐book (ISBN 0 471 60415 1)". Reference Reviews. 18 (8): 12–12. doi:10.1108/09504120410565611. ISSN 0950-4125.
  19. ""The accumulation of stereotype-based self-fulfilling prophecies": Correction to Madon et al. (2018)". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 116 (1): 68–68. 2019. doi:10.1037/pspi0000173. ISSN 1939-1315.
  20. See Nemesis, Moirai, Erinyes. "Very often the bases for false definitions and consequent self-fulfilling prophecies are deeply rooted in the individual or group norms and are subsequently difficult to change". (Wilkins 1976:177).
  21. Herodotus Histories 1.88
  22. Irwin, Robert (2003). The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. pp. 193–4. ISBN 1-86064-983-1.
  23. Irwin, Robert (2003). The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. p. 199. ISBN 1-86064-983-1.
  24. Ulrich Marzolph, Richard van Leeuwen, Hassan Wassouf (2004). The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 109. ISBN 1-57607-204-5.
  25. Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 139, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
  26. Whittaker, S. Secret attraction Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, The Montreal Gazette, May 12, 2007.
  27. Redden, Guy, Magic Happens: A New Age Metaphysical Mystery Tour, Journal of Australian Studies: 101
  28. Carroll, Robert Todd (12 September). "law of attraction". The Skeptic's Dictionary. Retrieved 7 September 2012. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  29. Craig, William Lane (1987). "Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb's Paradox". Philosophia. 17 (3): 331–350. doi:10.1007/BF02455055.
  30. Dummett, Michael (1996). The Seas of Language. Oxford University Press. pp. 356, 370–375. ISBN 9780198240112.
  31. Dodds, E.R. (1966), Greece & Rome 2nd Ser., Vol. 13, No. 1, 37–49
  32. Klosterman, Chuck (2009). Eating the Dinosaur (1st Scribner hardcover ed.). New York: Scribner. pp. 60–62. ISBN 9781439168486.

Further reading

This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.