12 julio, 2024

Self-fulfilling prophecy: what it is, beliefs, examples, application

What is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

A self-fulfilling prophecy it is a false belief that directly or indirectly leads to its own fulfillment. This process involves three psychological events: having a false belief about someone, treating the person in a way that matches your false belief, and the person must respond to treatment by confirming the false belief.

In other words, it is a prediction that, when declared, itself constitutes the cause of its coming true.

It is the sociologist Robert K. Merton who coined the expression “self-fulfilling prophecy” and formalized its structure and consequences. in his book Social Theory and Social Structure, Merton defines a self-fulfilling prophecy like this:

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a false definition of a situation or person that evokes a new behavior, which makes the false conception come true. This deceptive validity perpetuates the error. The holder of the false belief will perceive the course of events as proof that he was right all along.

Example: When a wife believes that her marriage will fail, her fears cause that failure to be confirmed.

Therefore, a positive or negative prophecy (a strong belief or delusion), declared to be true, even if it is false, could sufficiently influence a person so that his reactions fulfill that belief.

Relationship between false beliefs and self-fulfilling prophecies

A false belief is a belief that does not match the selfconcept of a person (what the person thinks of himself). It can be positive or negative. For example, you may have the belief that a person is capable of doing or not doing something.

From the false belief treats the person in a way that matches them and the person may begin to respond to that treatment by confirming that belief. In turn, the person may begin to doubt himself or believe in himself, depending on the treatment he receives.

A self-fulfilling prophecy has a powerful psychological effect when your expectations of another person’s abilities influence how that person views themselves.

Self-fulfilling prophecies began to be studied in the school environment. Robert Rosenthal (1933-2020) examined how female teachers influence the school performance of their students. He found that teachers were likely to treat their students according to his beliefs:

“Creating a warm and friendly environment for students, giving them opportunities to develop their skills, and providing feedback based on performance.”

In Rosenthal’s experiment, elementary school teachers were told that three students had scored higher than the others on aptitude tests. They were also told not to treat them any differently.

At the end of the year, they passed the tests again and those three students scored above the others. The interesting thing is that in the initial aptitude test the three indicated students had scored like the rest of the students.

Why do other people’s false beliefs influence how we see ourselves?

According to self-verification theory (Swann, 1987), people have a basic desire to confirm their self-concepts, including how they view themselves. In addition, they want to find harmony between their perceptions and the new information that comes to them.

This theory suggests that it is existentially pleasurable to confirm the self-concept, even if it is negative; the person would feel congruent when observing that his perception coincides with that of other people.

For example, we verify other people’s false beliefs by acting on them, and this gives us a strong sense of identity. We try to live according to a role/function.

Application of self-fulfilling prophecies

Although there are many applications, some of them are:


If teachers believe that their students are gifted, they will act to fulfill their beliefs, and the children will end up learning more and achieving better results.

It is a concept that has already been widely used in the United States with the War on Poverty, in 1964.


If a coach has a belief that a player can perform well and is skillful, he will behave in a way that will lead the player to fulfill that belief.

Performance and personal life

As in the example of the wife, we can make positive prophecies so that positive results are more likely.

“When some children are randomly selected and their teachers are told that in the next few months they will improve intellectually a lot, they do it”. Rosenthal, 1985.

“Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; It reproduces itself by paralyzing our will to act.. Howard Zinn.

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