Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

The stories we tell ourselves through self-talk and narrative create a series of mental boundaries that can influence our lives dramatically.
In fact, what we believe often comes true.
This is called the self-fulfilling prophecy: something that becomes true because you’ve willed it into existence by telling yourself it exists.
Your inner voice tells you a given outcome is so certain and absolute that, eventually, it becomes so.
You almost give yourself no other option but for the prophecy to become real.
Technically, a self-fulfilling prophecy could be positive—but way more often, it’s not.

When a negative self-prediction manifests itself, that’s the sign that your mindset needs improvement.
The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” was invented by American sociologist Robert K. Merton.
Merton drafted the concept from an idea called the Thomas theorem, a hypothesis devised by fellow sociologists William and Dorothy Thomas in 1928: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” The theory declares that our subjective feelings or perceptions about a certain circumstance are more powerful than objective reality.
To that end, real results are more often determined by interpretation than literal factors.
The idea behind the self-fulfilling prophecy is that a person’s beliefs about a given situation affect how they behave.
If one is absolutely certain of their understanding of the pending situation and its meaning, their external behavior about that situation will follow suit.
That behavior, in turn, causes the emergent reality to unfold exactly to their expectations.
This is called the behavioral confirmation effect.
A classic illustration on the self-fulfilling prophecy is Oedipus Rex, a Greek tragedy that gives a wildly different take on the concept of “family values.” The characters in the play are all driven by a shared obsession with a dire prediction.
One by one, each member of the family commits or endures horrifying consequences because they’re convinced the prediction is inevitable.
Lauis, the king of Thebes, receives an oracle that informs him that one day his son will kill him and marry his wife (the son’s mother).
The king is so spooked and certain about this fortune that he abandons his son—Oedipus—and leaves him to die, figuring that will keep the whole sordid mess from happening.
But Oedipus survives and is raised by the king and queen of Corinth, who he naturally assumes are his real parents.
Then he gets a prophecy that he’s going to kill his father and marry his mom, so he takes off from Corinth to prevent that ugliness.
Oedipus goes to Thebes, where he gets into a fight with a stranger near some crossroads and kills him.
Guess who that stranger is? Yep, it’s Lauis.
But Oedipus doesn’t know that he’d just killed his own father.
Oedipus, who’s a little tortured by nature anyway, is eventually comforted by a woman named Jocasta, who thinks fortune-telling is kind of a sham and he shouldn’t be so concerned about it.
After all, once a prophet told her that her husband would be killed by his son, but instead he was killed by a highway robber near some crossroads.
You probably know where that’s going.
Oedipus and Jocasta get married.
But then another prophet comes forward and tells her Oedipus’s true lineage: she is his real mom, and he killed her husband, namely his real father, and by some hilarious miscalculations she is now married to her own son.
I don’t know how you react when you hear bad news, but Jocasta didn’t take this information very well and proceeded to hang herself.
Oedipus didn’t go that far when he found out, but he did gouge out his eyes.
It’s twisted, it’s convoluted; welcome to Greek tragedies.
So the self-fulfilling prophecy—that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother—wound up coming true, and the obsession that all in the family carried with them wound up driving them into the exact behaviors that would fulfill this prophecy.
One of the takeaways from Oedipus Rex, besides thinking twice about online psychic readings, is how the self-fulfilling prophecy had such a fatal sway over all the participants’ lives.
If Lauis weren’t so convinced that his son was going to be a killer, he might have taken more rational measures instead of dumping him at the corner.
He could have kept Oedipus and raised him with forethought and compassion.
Lauis could have brushed off all those stinking oracles and been father of the year.
But by swearing to the wheezing fortuneteller’s words and deciding there was nothing he could do about it, he saw the prophecy come true.
Simple belief created reality.
Another angle of the self-fulfilling prophecy is when we latch onto a reality we want to believe, even when it’s plainly obvious that it’s untrue or detrimental.
Let’s consider another example that’s not quite so squalid as Oedipus: the smartest horse in the world.
A German animal trainer named Wilhelm von Osten had a horse he called “Clever Hans.” Von Osten contended that Clever Hans could solve math problems, read, and spell like a reasonably intelligent child.
Clever Hans gave his answers to questions by stomping his hoof.
If someone asked the horse what three plus four was, he’d stomp his hoof seven times.
Similarly, when asked to spell something, Clever Hans would stomp his hoof according to the position of each letter in the alphabet (one stomp for A, two for B, three for C, and so on).
This made von Osten sure that animals were just as intelligent as humans, just not able to sit at a desk.
So he decided to turn his horse’s talents into show business gold and took Clever Hans on the road as an exhibition.
Plenty of so-called experts thought von Osten had some sort of trick up his sleeve.
But trial after trial they came to believe as he did: this was some kind of grand super-horse who understood math and language.
Some even thought Clever Hans had the intellectual capacity of a healthy 14-year-old, which might not sound that magnificent but is pretty impressive for a horse.
One skeptic remained unmoved: Oskar Pfungst, a psychologist who ran a series of more controlled tests on Clever Hans.
These tests were designed to get to the core of the horse’s abilities and determine whether they were the result of great smarts or some other condition.
Pfungst asked a lot more questions to remove the likelihood of “chance” results.
He also mixed up Clever Hans’s questioners, had them ask questions from different parts of the room, and told them to ask questions to which they did not know the answers.
Additionally, he had Clever Hans blindfolded for some of the questions.
By running multiple iterations of the experiments, Pfungst discovered a few quirks about Clever Hans’s abilities.
He performed much better with certain questioners at a certain distance and had much more success when he wasn’t blindfolded and when the questioners knew the answers beforehand.
Pfungst determined, much to von Osten’s disappointment, that Clever Hans’s responses were triggered by certain cues his questioners unwittingly displayed.
For example, people would look down at the horse’s hoof to count the taps; when Clever Hans reached the correct answer they might look up, which Hans had learned early on was a sign to stop stomping.
Instead of developing intellectual ability, Clever Hans was responding to very subtle shifts or changes in the movements of his askers—a remarkable feat in itself, but nowhere nearly as impressive (or financially lucrative) as a horse who knew math and language.
What does Clever Hans say about the self-fulfilling prophecy? That our beliefs play a huge part in our actions, which we take to make our expectations true.
Von Osten came to a point of certainty about what was making Clever Hans run, and it informed his behavior and statements about the animal.
Pfungst, on the other hand, couldn’t be persuaded as to the horse’s magical abilities —and by not getting caught up in the fantasy, he uncovered the truth and stopped Clever Hans’s money train in its tracks.
Sometimes it’s a persistent negative belief about ourselves that we can’t shake, which ends up causing a negative outcome.
Take someone who’s had trouble finding a job.
They’re convinced they don’t have anything to offer as an employee or at least believe what they have is easily replaceable.
Perhaps they suffer from something called “imposter syndrome,” in which one believes that they’re conning everyone as to what they can do and it’s just a matter of time before they get exposed.
This person can get as prepared as they possibly can for an interview—they can rehearse answering questions, look professional, arrive 15 minutes early, anything that gives them a heads-up.
But the reality of their self-belief, or rather the lack of it, has a way of breaking through all that preparation.
They manage to convince whoever’s hiring them that they’re not right for the job.
The self-fulfilled prophecy comes true.
What difference would a higher self-belief have made? Well, a completely different prophecy would have been created.
The Power of Thoughts Whatever is going on inside of our heads is powerful.
But it’s entirely conceivable to conjure up a good result through the power of thought—as we commonly call it, “mind over matter.” A research touchstone for this kind of phenomena is a highly cited paper by Henry Beecher, which described the effects of fake medicine, or “placebos,” to patients suffering from a certain kind of ailment.
(The word “placebo” is a Latin word translating to “I shall please.”) Most often these placebos took the form of a sugar pill that had no true physical effect on the patient, but sometimes they involved a “sympathetic” physical examination as well.
Beecher claimed that using the placebos resulted in a 30% improvement in the patients’ health.
They assumed that they were taking an action (or a pill) that would help their condition, and for many of them, that belief itself contributed to their recovery.
Overlooking the trickery involved, this demonstrates a good deal about the power of suggestibility in creating a positive effect.
The placebo effect is, many believe, more useful to treat psychological conditions rather than physical ones.
A recent experiment revealed that 60% of depression patients who received placebo treatment showed improved results over a waiting-list control group.
This suggests to an even greater extent that the power of suggestion is a strong motivator, particularly in issues more connected with mental and emotional health.
Since the placebo effect draws from the usage of a “remedy” that isn’t made to have a “literal” effect, many have doubts about its effectiveness.
But the placebo effect is no hoax, and it’s not the product of an accident, experimental irregularity, or partiality.
It’s a real outcome that works with the functionality of the brain.
When the brain anticipates a certain result, that anticipation plays a heavy part in affecting how it all comes down.
It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy that mirrors what the brain would do if it were generating all the events it wanted to.
Thoughts can affect the real world, even if it’s not something that you intend.
Subtle shifts in mindset can affect more than expectations, demeanor, or attitude—in certain situations they can produce meaningful and measurable change.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer ran an experiment to test that theory.
Langer collected a group of 84 hotel maids who were mostly overweight.
Even though all topped their daily recommended total exercise in the course of their duties, 67% of them didn’t think they were physically active.
Langer theorized that the maids’ perspective about their physical activity was hampering their ability to lose weight.
In other words, whether or not they believed they were healthy made them so.
The maids were divided into two groups and measured.
Langer praised one group that its level of daily physical activity was far more than what the surgeon general suggested.
She said nothing to the other group.
One month later, Langer’s research crew came back to the hotel to review the maids’ progress.
The half who received praise and full information on their exercise showed strong improvements in vital health factors: weight, systolic blood pressure, and waist-to-hip ratio.
The group who received no information didn’t show any meaningful changes at all.
Langer concluded that the maids’ awareness of their physical activity served as an engine for their physical improvement and likely resulted in bettering their mental health as well.
Langer’s speculation was strengthened by the maids’ managers saying they didn’t notice any substantial changes to employees’ routines.
With nothing more than new knowledge about their everyday physical activity, these maids achieved results that the others didn’t.
They didn’t alter their daily routines, and they didn’t take on any special programs.
Just by having their thinking reset, they were able to make some relevant and healthy changes with tangible results.
This study shows how powerful an affirmative mindset can be, even when all other factors of one’s life don’t change.
The maids were all taking reasonable steps already to maintain a healthy existence—but the addition of an affirmation to their already-existent mindset gave them a healthy, unexpected boost.
This is a startling example of just how much power the mind can have.
Of course, you can’t think yourself thin by saying “I’m physically fit!” while chowing down on cheese puffs and sitting in front of a television for 10 hours.
The power of positive thinking, self-fulfilling prophecy, and changing the mindset is real.
It’s not anti-science, new-age puffery, or wishful thinking.
What the mind can do all by itself to push one to become a better person, scholar, practitioner, or even partner can be astonishing.
And this book will go into proven ways that can change your mindset for life.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.

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