Imagine that you just landed the job of your dreams. You’re elated, you’re hopeful, and you’re more than ready to begin this next chapter of your life—but that’s not to say you aren’t worried and anxious about it as well.
What if my new coworkers don’t like me? What if I fail to thrive? Unfortunately, these negative thoughts and feelings begin to overshadow the positive ones.
And on your first day they’re channeled into everything you do: because you’re nervous about not getting along with your coworkers, you limit interactions with them and rub them the wrong way; and because you’re worried you won’t excel at the new job, you overthink everything you do, which makes for less than satisfactory work. I knew it—my coworkers hate me and I’m not a good fit for the job, you say to yourself.
You’ve just envisioned a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy: an expectation (negative or positive) that becomes true because we are acting as if it is already true. The presumptions that your coworkers wouldn’t like you and that you would fail at your new job directly affected your behavior, which then produced the negative outcome you expected. If you, on the other hand, capitalized on positive thoughts and anticipated a positive outcome, a more favorable experience would result…
Imagine again that you just snagged your dream job. Only instead of letting those negative thoughts and feelings manifest, you walk into work on your first day confident and expectant of a positive experience. Your coworkers and your boss pick up on the good vibes and you produce excellent work. I knew today would be a good one, you think to yourself and smile. Your positive beliefs about how the day would go directly resulted in a positive outcome.
Conceptual History of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Sociologist Robert Merton coined the expression in the 20th century and defines self-fulfilling prophecy as, “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” He explains this concept further by applying it to a puzzling happening at a local bank. One day, an abnormally large amount of people visit this bank at the same time and for no good reason—it’s pure happenstance. This, however, makes others worry and assume something has gone wrong. Rumors about bankruptcy and insolvency begin to fly, and customers flood the bank, in attempt to retrieve their money while they can. And while none of these rumors are true, the sudden withdrawal of so many customers causes the bank to become insolvent and declare bankruptcy.
This example explains just how vital expectations can be to the actual outcome of a situation: the belief that the bank was insolvent became reality after so many fueled this false idea. And if customers had instead bestowed trust and confidence in the bank, all involved would experience more positive outcomes.
Widespread Examples in Effect
We individually engage with self-fulfilling prophecies every day. There are, however, also specific examples of self-fulfilling prophecies that occur often and impact a significant number of people:
- Placebo effect: A placebo is a treatment or medication that contains no active therapeutic effect—it instead serves the purpose of making someone believe they’re on treatment or functions as a control in medical research. And the placebo effect is when an individual believes their underlying condition has improved due to the placebo, when in fact it has improved due to their own personal expectations.
- Observer-expectancy effect: This is when a researcher’s cognitive bias leads them to unknowingly and accidentally influence participants of an experiment, such as in music backmasking—whereas verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards. Some participants expect to hear the hidden messages and therefore do, while others hear nothing other than random noises. But when the messages are pointed out by the researchers, they become obvious.
- Stereotype threat: Stereotype threat occurs when an individual is at risk (or believes to be at risk) of conforming to their social group’s stereotypes. If, for example, someone belongs to a negatively-stereotyped group, they are more likely to grow anxious about their performance or identity and, in turn, fail to perform well. The opposite it also true (stereotype boost), whereas an individual performs exceptionally well due to positive stereotypes surrounding their social group.
Use Self-Fulfilling Prophecies to Your Advantage
Self-fulfilling prophecies ultimately have the power to result in both positive and negative consequences—but the best part is that it all comes down to which thoughts and beliefs you choose to fuel. Think back to that very first example of starting a new job: you have the power to make that first day either a positive or negative experience. And to make it a positive one, all you have to do is focus on your excitement and your confidence, whilst silencing your worries about not succeeding.
Consider how self-fulfilling prophecies can negatively and positively affect you in everyday life: trust that you’re going to have a good day when you wake up in the morning; tell yourself that it’s not the end of the world when your car breaks down; wholeheartedly believe that your presentation at work will go well. It all comes down to feeding the positive beliefs and kicking the negative ones to the curb.