A self-fulfilling prophecy is a psychological phenomenon whereby an individual ‘predicts’ or expects that a future event will happen, and ultimately that event manifests due to the individual’s resulting behavior that has aligned to fulfill said belief.
That is, one’s ‘prediction’ or expectation comes true because one anticipates that it will.
The behaviors that lead to and result in the prophecy or prediction, being fulfilled are often done unknowingly, making it seem that the event has come about by happenstance. Below we take a look at some examples of self-fulfilling prophecies at work.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy Examples
- Bank failures during the great depression: false rumors suggesting banks were running out of money caused behaviors in individuals that led to banks actually running out of money.
- The story of Oedipus: the Greek king inadvertly kills his father and marries his mother despite his attempts to seek a future free from external predictions.
- Teachers and students: a teacher may unwittingly believe a student is a “bad apple” although the student is well-liked and intelligent. Because of this external stimulus and prediction, the student may be treated in a way that reflects this teacher’s belief, resulting in the student becoming a “bad apple” for real.
- Depressive thoughts: negative thoughts associated with depression about oneseful for prolonged periods of time may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy of said thoughts.
- Job interviews: when anxiety results in negative self-talk, behaviors may reflect this and create the very outcome the interviewee is afraid of happening – not getting the job.
- Romantic Relationships: believing that your partner will be your life partner results in behavior that reflects this, and ultimately encourages similar behaviors to be reciprocated, resulting in a desirable outcome – your partner as your spouse.
- Dangerous slums: when a neighborhood is predicted or believed to be a dangerous “slum” the self-fulfilling prophecy of this belief may happen as a result of wealthy families moving away, lower-income families moving to the area (as it has become more affordable), and more police may be present which further suggests danger.
- Strikebreakers: in the 20th century, many folks believed that the Black workers were strikebreakers (people who work despite a strike), which resulted in labor unions shunning them. This resulted in Black workers being unable to find reliable jobs, and ths, many resorted to actually becoming strikebreakers in order to obtain a job.
- Psychological Perception of Pain: In a study conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder, it was found that patients in a medical situation who expect to have a painful experience will in fact feel more pain even when a stimulus isn’t actually painful.
- Decision-making in economics – a study observing investors’ economic risk-taking behavior found that those who received a negative investment forecast were less likely to take risks and took longer to make a decision about their investments, ultimately resulting in lower profits.
- Employee creativity: supervisors with positive expectations of employee creativity have actually been found to affect the creativity of employees. That is, higher expectations of creativity among employees resulted in employees feeling more supportive and thus more likely to be more creative.
- Real estate market: if there are expectations that the real estate market will depreciate, this widespread expectation may result in homeowners deciding to sell their properties, ultimately leading to an excess supply in the market which then leads to the depreciation of the real estate market.
- Socialization: if a person moves to a new city and believes that they are socially awkward and unlikeable, they may also believe that they won’t be able to make friends. This may affect the behavior that this person exhibits (avoiding gatherings, being alone, not branching out), resulting in this person not meeting anyone and believing their original self-deprecating thoughts.
- Workplace paranoia: employees who perceive they are the victim of politics being played out in the office in a negative way tend to make decisions that make them more likely to actually be the target of politics in the office.
- Entrepreneurial spirit: is an entrepreneur is preparing for a meeting with potential investors for their start-up, if they believe that the investors will love their product and want to invest in the company, chances are they would present their business case with a degree of confidence that instills trust in the investors, leading them to invest in the company.
Real-Life Examples of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Oedipus was a mythical Greek king of Thebes, whose whole life trajectory changed when a self-fulfilling prophecy came true in a very public manner.
Oedipus’s father Laius is thought to have told Oedipus that he was going to die by Oedipus’ hands and marry his mother. Fearful of this prediction, Oedipus leaves his biological parents and is eventually led to live with foster parents.
While he is under his foster parent’s care, he is again approached with a warning that he is going to kill his father and marry his mother. Once again afraid, Oedipus abandons his foster parents after many years and goes to a new city.
In the city, he meets a stranger and ends up fighting him – the man is killed and Oedipus marries his widow. As it turns out, the man he killed is his biological father, and the widow, his biological mother. That is, a self-fulfilling prophecy of Oedipus’ future played out against his will.
2. Bank failures during the great depression
During the Great Depression, which took place between 1929 and 1939, false rumors began to spread about the state of banks and their reliability.
Many times, a rumor suggesting a bank was incapable of covering its deposits (insolvency) would be started and would cause panic among depositors. Faced with a frightful scenario that they believed to be real, depositors would then withdraw all of their money from their accounts before they bank’s money would run out (or so they thought), which ultimately caused banks to actually become insolvent.
In other words, the initial rumor and prediction that banks would run out of money resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy of banks running out of money during the Great Depression.
3. Depressive thoughts
If an individual is suffering from depression and begins to hold negative thoughts about themselves, such as “I am worthless,” “I can’t function properly,” and “no one likes me and I have no friends,” it is likely that after a prolonged period of time, these thoughts will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That is, although traumatic events and mood swings may cause one to feel down, the perpetuation of negative thoughts and believing that one in unlikable may result in this person acting in ways that is in fact unlikeable, thus leading to individuals around them not being interested in establishing a friendship.
4. Job Interviews
It is normal to feel nervous ahead of a big job interview. Most people will be hopeful for a good outcome but may deal with the anxiety of the unknown.
If this anxiety results in negative thinking and self-doubt, it’s likely that an interview will have a self-fulfilling outcome.
That is, going into an interview expecting the worst may unintentionally result in the interviewee behaving in a way that reflects this belief: they may not smile, they may be tired, they may have difficulty answering questions or formulating complete thoughts. This behavior, of course, is undesirable and would likely lead to the interviewee not getting a callback.
5. Romantic relationships
Alternatively, self-fulfilling prophecies can also result in a positive outcome.
Take, for instance, a new couple in the early stages of dating. One of the partners may believe that the other person is “the one” with whom they know they will spend the rest of their life with. Because of this thought, they tread their partner with love and respect and invest more time and energy into making the relationship fulfilling.
This love and attention ensures that their partner will feel satisfied with the relationship, causing them to invest a similar level of energy toward their partner. This equal and positive exchanging of love and energy will likely have an outcome of a happy marriage, a self-fulfilling prophecy of the original thought.
While self-fulfilling prophecies may appear on the surface to be relatively harmless, there are actually severe consequences associated with perpetuating this type of behavior. If left unchecked, self-fulfilling prophecies can aid in the maintenance of problematic stereotypes that segregate folks and encourage inequalities to play out that the original stereotypes suggested and at the expense of other individuals.
Understanding how to recognize when one may be assuming expectations of actions and characteristics of a particular group based on stereotypes, as well as recognizing when inaccurate beliefs of social groups are put into practice externally, will allow for individuals to mitigate self-fulfilling prophecies that are placed upon others. That is, stopping the vicious cycle of assumed expectations of others that are founded upon stereotypes will allow for more social cohesion and less animosity and inequality between groups.