‘Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy.’Brain Tracy
It is very easy to make predictions about our lives and how the future will appear. Occasionally our beliefs about an event can influence our behaviour in a manner that will bring those beliefs into reality. The term for this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a term coined by the American sociologist Robert K Merton.
So why is this phenomenon an important one to understand? It’s important because it allows you to take advantage of them in a positive way, instead of tripping and falling into the pit holes that can arise all too easily from self-made negative prophecies.
Due to this, I have chosen to put together a longer article on this topic. Detailing how this fascinating phenomenon can impact your life in multiple domains, such as mental health and communication, as well as ways that you can use them to your advantage.
The Cycle of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecies can lead to cycles of thoughts and positive feedback loops that amplify the belief that gave rise to the prophecy in the first place. This can have significant benefits in some situations if the underlying assumption is positive. However, it can cause massive damage if the belief is negative, resulting in a downwards spiral that only amplifies that negative belief and makes the loop harder and harder to break.
The cycle tends to form as follows:
- First, we hold a particular set of beliefs about ourselves.
- These beliefs end up unconsciously influencing our actions towards others.
- Our resulting actions towards others, impact their beliefs about us.
- Their new beliefs about us, causes them to act in ways consistent with those beliefs towards us. Acting to validate our own beliefs.
Of course, this does not always occur in terms of how people might respond to us. The mind has a tendency to use many things as evidence to prove itself right. For example, you might be convinced that you are not able to succeed at an assignment, but you try anyway. In this case, the moment you inevitably face any difficulty on that assignment, which grows more likely due to self-sabotage caused from the negative belief from the beginning, your brain can and often will use that evidence of even mild difficulty to fully validate the belief that you do not have what it takes to succeed.
This can, fortunately, work the other way as well when it comes to positive beliefs. Further reinforcing them based on the feedback received from the world around us. Though as with all positive feedback loops, it can end up turning something minor into something major remarkably quickly.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Mental Health.
‘Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.’Howard Zinn
The domain of mental health can be greatly impacted due to self-fulfilling prophecies. Only exacerbated by the cyclical properties that they can acquire, which I outlined above. This can lead to them playing a major role in developing and deepening depression and Anxiety.
In terms of depression, it is not uncommon for someone suffering it to have some rather negative beliefs about themselves. These could include feeling worthless, unlovable, incapable of doing anything correctly and that they are utterly helpless. Unfortunately, these thoughts can lead to people giving up on fighting through the dark period in their lives and working to pull themselves out of it. The thoughts of hopelessness are particularly damaging in this sense. If you do not believe that you can pull yourself free of the depression, even if it may be an arduous task, why would you even bother expending that energy?
Of course, this can also often amplify due to the cyclical nature of self-fulfilling prophecies in response to feedback from the outside world. This can cripple our willingness to act and our willingness to do anything that might help drag ourselves out of darker periods of life. It might even lead to the sort of self-sabotage that only makes things much worse instead.
The same can apply just as well to cases of Anxiety. If you believe that a situation is going to be terrifying, you are going to have a much higher chance of being scared stiff. This gets considerably worse if you end up having to run from a situation, as your brain is wired to consider anything you run from as a dire threat indeed. That will only give more evidence to further validate the fear and deepen the mental cycle.
The impact of self-fulfilling prophecies on mental health has recently prompted groups of psychologists, such as those found at the University of Bath, to investigate the impact of mental health labels and diagnosis. Additionally, studies have been conducted on the impact of such labels on children and how they can give rise to negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Leading to some cases of something minor morphing into a full psychological condition.
In short, be very careful how you describe those around you. You might give rise to a self-fulfilling property or accidentally act in a manner that further validates their own negative beliefs about themselves. Of course, in reverse, if you say something positive about them, you might give some evidence to break the cycles and greatly help them.
How Self-Fulfilling Prophecies can Affect Relationships.
‘If you think you’ll always let people down, that’s all you’ll ever do, I said.’Julia Claiborne Johnson
Communication and relationships are other areas of life that can be impacted by self-fulfilling prophecies. However, it is not the beliefs about yourself that impact things as much as your preconceptions about the other person.
For example, if you have to deal with someone you think will be an utter pain. The chances are that you are already showing a defensive or aggressive attitude brought about by your thoughts about them. This will put the other person off and may end up with them either getting more defensive or aggressive as a result, mirroring the very attitude that you have displayed and validating your preconceptions.
This is equally true in regards to asking for something, be it a raise from your boss or asking an attractive person on a date. If you walk into that situation with the belief that you will be rejected, your lack of confidence, as a result, will increase the chances of that becoming a reality. However, this also applies in reverse, where if you go into a negotiation with the mindset that you may be able to pull it off, you will be more likely to do so.
Similarly, this phenomenon can be beneficial when it comes to meeting people and dealing with strangers. If you approach the person in the belief that they are likeable and friendly unless proven otherwise. The subsequent warmth that you will subconsciously display to them will make them more likely to show you the same warmth in return.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Aging.
‘Of all the self-fulfilling prophecies in our culture, the assumption that aging means decline and poor health is probably the deadliest.’Marilyn Ferguson
An interesting example of self-fulfilling prophecies occurs in relation to peoples thoughts in relation to ageing. While some people utterly dread the thought of getting older, others do not share the same fears of continuing to enjoy life no matter what age they might be.
I believe that this is caused by the assumption that ageing always involves decline, loss of opportunity and poor health. A belief that often leads to people giving up as they age, resigning themselves to a life of daytime TV as they believe all of their best days are behind them. Of course, this lifestyle that can occur from this belief that you are too old to be active and engaged in life can often lead to health consequences that does make it much harder to do as much, fulfilling the prophecy.
Fortunately, in my life, I have also seen many older people not let anything stop them, in particular, a lot of the older ranchers in Canada. People who are completely able to throw around hay bales at well past 50 and are determined to stay active as long as they can. I have known family members who are much the same, going on adventures around the world despite being much older than their 20’s. All of these people love life and take much more enjoyment out of life than those who choose to give up on their dreams the moment they hit middle age, and they also stay much healthier for longer.
In continuing to be active, they make the most of the latter half of their lives. They make the most of every moment afforded to them. Instead of lamenting about their lost youth and their glory days, they seek to make every single day as glorious as possible. In doing so, they break free of the narrative of ageing so common in today’s society and the self-fulfilling prophecy it can cause.
How to take full advantage of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.
‘The law of self-fulfilling prophecy says that you get what you expect. So why not create great expectations and the highest vision possible of yourself and your world?’Mark Victor Hansen
So given how self-fulfilling prophecies can lead to harm in some circumstances, how can you go about using them to benefit yourself and others. What ways are there to use the same principles for good?
One particularly interesting case that falls under this would be one of the possible theories for why good luck charms work. Though the belief that the item will grant the holder good luck, calmer nerves or so on, they can sometimes manage to bring those effects about. This ties in quite closely to the placebo effect, where a placebo, such as a sugar pill instead of medication, can actually occasionally improve the patient’s condition solely due to the expectation that they will get better. This can benefit those on the receiving end of the placebo effect, as it can grant benefits to the person taking it without any of the risks associated with any form of pharmaceutical drug.
Additionally, as I touched upon above, as your expectations of yourself can impact your mental state and relationships, why not create great expectations for them? Why not strive to improve, remaining hopeful and positive, as by doing such, you are more likely to have positive experiences. Of course, this is not the same as delusion where you convince yourself you are an utterly perfect human being, but I am saying it is important to believe in yourself and believe that despite any adversity in your way, that you can persevere, grow and succeed regardless.
If you believe you are worth something, you are more likely to be treated as if you have value.
If you believe that you have the fortitude to persevere, you are more likely to be able to push on past the difficulties.
And if you believe you can learn and grow, you will be able to grow and develop into the best version of you imaginable.