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The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: You Create Your Future

If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right. – Henry Ford

Have you ever studied for a test and thought to yourself: This is too difficult, I’m not going to pass this test and exactly that happened – you failed? In that moment, you probably concluded you were right. But why was it that your prediction was proven correct? The answer to that question is the self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is the self-fulfilling prophecy?

A self-fulfilling prophecy is simply the physical outcome of a situation being influenced by our thinking. It can be both positive and negative [2, 3]. This phenomenon describes how our identity shapes how we act and communicate. We’ll explain it this way…

Studying for the test

Let’s say a student is facing that test we mentioned. He’s anxious and is convinced he’s destined to fail. So he spends more time worrying than studying. He may also procrastinate – hang out, watch movies, text, etc. Yet he probably thinks he studied the whole day. He does poorly in the exam, a consequence of the negative thinking that interfered with his studying – thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy..

So, now let’s imagine the same test scenario, but this time the student predicts he’s going to pass the test with flying colors. He’s really focused on studying, puts in the necessary effort, and doesn’t procrastinate.  He may even ask a friend for help if he needs it. He passes the test and gets an A!  Here we have a different thinking pattern, with consequent actions and a positive outcome.

These may be extreme examples, but each reflects the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. So now we can see that a self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction or expectation that comes true simply because one acts as if it were true [1]. However, not only do we ourselves buy into the expectation that makes us act in a certain way, so do the people with whom we communicate.

The self-fulfilling-prophecy cycle

Have you ever been invited to a party you didn’t want to go to because you expected to have a terrible time? If you were, is it possible that your prediction of having a very bad time increased the likelihood of its occurrence?

Imagine this prophecy as a cycle with five basic steps [1]:

  1. You form expectations of yourself, others, or events – for example, you may think – Emma won’t like me.
  2. You express those expectations verbally or nonverbally – so I`ll keep my distance from her.
  3. Others adjust their behavior and communication to match your messages – Emma thinks you’re convinced that you`re superior and decided not to talk to you.
  4. Your expectations become reality – you may conclude that Emma actually doesn’t like you.
  5. The confirmation strengthens your belief – every time you see Emma, you’re reminded that she doesn’t like you.

Feeling bad and unlikable is an unwelcome outcome, but it doesn’t have to be like this! More positive beliefs that lead to different behaviors could bring about the desired outcome.

Now, let’s imagine a positive self-fulfilling-prophecy cycle. You can’t wait to go to a friend’s party. There is Emma and you hope she’ll like you. When you see her, you approach her and make small talk. Emma is having fun and thinks that you’re interesting. You see that she likes you and you’ll be happy to meet up with her again.

How to break the cycle of the negative self-fulfilling prophecy

The cycle of the self-fulfilling prophecy frequently has an unfavorable outcome, but that isn’t always the case. Some people use it to their own advantage [2, 3]. Here are some ways to break a negative, vicious cycle and create a positive one.

Be aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now that you know how our expectations can impact our behavior and that of those around us, you should keep that in mind in both your self-talk and when you talk to others.

Change your beliefs.

You are your own ego breaker or maker. Break with old ways of thinking and update the way you think about yourself. Replace negative self-talk and upsetting mental pictures with objectively more accurate expectations. Practice your positive self-talk, be optimistic about yourself and your performance!

Work on your self-esteem.

When we have low self-esteem we may have lower expectations than what is reasonable. If we think we’ll fail, it might seem outlandish to believe we could pass a test, but that’s exactly why we need to adjust our thinking. Focus on who you want to be/what you want to do, and not on your current expectations.

Fake it.

In the beginning, if you’re struggling with negative thoughts, just fake it – fake it until you make it. As you practice positive thinking, your behavior will change as well. Remember that making this change may be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean you’re being less yourself. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing –  you’re just adjusting your behavior to match your values.

Change your language.

Try to avoid using absolute words such as never, always, I can`t, and hate. Vicious cycles usually include those words. Instead, replace them with neutral or positive words and phrases, such as I`ll give it my best. Thus, instead of thinking negative thoughts, say to yourself I can do this.

Surround yourself with people who believe in you.

How others treat us influences the person we think we are. Choose the people you surround yourself with. Over time, they will convince you and a magical process of fulfilling these expectations will be launched.

Take your time.

Changing your thought patterns is a process which takes a lot of time, consistency, and persistence. Be patient with yourself! When you recognize an unproductive thought pattern, stop, re-group, and begin again.

References:

[1] Gamble, T. K., & Gamble, M. W. (2013). Interpersonal communication: Building connections together. Sage Publications.

[2] Merton, R. K. (1948). The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The Antioch Review,8(2), 193-208. doi:10.2307/4609267

[3] Merton, R. K (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

 

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