A self-fulfilling prophecy


By Tinky Ningombam

I bet you have friends who are self claimed oracles; People who repeat “I told you so” after every bad incident that happens to you. Do you always hurt yourself almost every time someone warns you to be careful? For instance, the moment someone tells you to walk slowly on the wet floor, you tend to slip. Do you always find yourselves in a situation that people always generally warn you against.  Especially after reading your daily horoscopes, why does it seem that the bad predictions always seem to come true? These are queries that psychologists and sociologists study, the questions of human behavior.  And this has a term; it’s called a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

Examples of self-fulfilling prophecies are abundant in ancient history. Right from ancient Greek and Hindu mythologies or throughout literature, they have served as key motif and plots as well as proof of how the human behavior adapts/conforms/responds to external stimuli.

It was Robert Merton, a 20th century American Sociologist who coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” or SFP in short. In his 1949 book, Social Theory and Social Structure, he defines “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true’ ”

A self-fulfilling prophecy will not work on a natural occurrence but rather on the interpersonal human behavior. A SFP cannot affect the outcome of a thunderstorm but it works on human behavior and how our actions are directed by our expectations and prejudices when the outcome is predicted beforehand; which is why the studies and applications are applied in Social Studies, Business Studies and Public Policies.

Before doing an action, we normally anticipate/predict an outcome in advance. Most of the time we go with a pre-conceived or a predicted idea of what is going to happen. If we carry a jug of water and we keep thinking that it might fall, our conscious / unconscious mind makes us expect the worst outcome, for it to fall and which will lead us to anticipate it falling.  Also exemplified in Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”.

Our anxiety on the prophesied result or consequence is the cause of the following action. Likewise, when a certain group of workers think that a company is underperforming or failing. Even if it is a false statement and the company might actually be doing very well, it might lead to people leaving the company and/or decreasing efforts that are invested into the company, hence, it will automatically make the company underperform and hence eventually fail.

SFP in our life are hence not uncommon. Though SFP may not hamper natural occurrences like natural calamities but it can influence smaller everyday situations and sometimes bigger ones by how people perceive situations and how they react according to their behavior pattern. My fascination with the topic is not merely based on the situational tropes that we face in our everyday lives but because of the enormous possibility of behavioral changes in people and groups of people due to negative self-prophesies.

It is clear that if a society believes whole-heartedly that certain events/ situations will come about, those people or groups of people will consciously or unconsciously act in a way that modifies the situations and engagements with each other to bring about the predicted events. Can we actually change people’s expectations by telling ourselves that we are not capable of something? Are we failing as a corrupt state because we cannot believe that we can change and hence conforming to the believed norm? Are the pre-conceived notions of gradual societal decay, civil discord and uprisings making us anticipate such as future? Is collective optimism possible by breaking the negative prophecy chain?

I read that most winners are unrealistically optimistic. They do not conform to a singular belief system. They will not limit themselves to isolated popular beliefs hence making them succeed when most fail due to their own structure of standardized belief systems.  We need people who are unrealistic optimists. A whole lot of them, people who believe that things will change for the better in our society, and only then will our systems change.


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