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A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that, in being made, actually causes itself to become true. For example, in the stock market, if it is widely believed that a crash is imminent, investors may lose confidence, sell most of their stock, and actually cause the crash. Or, if a candidate in an election openly declares they do not believe they can win, this may increase voter apathy and result in poor support for their campaign.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are often seen as similar to the predestination paradox, in which a person travels back in time to prevent an event, but ends up causing it. These two phenomena differ on a key point however. A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person with knowledge of future events alters his behaviour in a way that ends up causing these events. On the other hand, a predestination paradox is when a person with knowledge of past events goes back in time, and ends up causing the events.
Self-fulfilling prophecy is sometimes seen as a manifestation of positive feedback in human society. In short, because a given prophecy was known, and was sufficiently credible, it affected people's actions and caused itself. Robert K. Merton is usually acknowledged as the maker of this phrase and using it in sociology.
In the United States the concept was broadly and consistently applied in the field of public education reform, following the "War on Poverty". Theodore Brameld noted: “In simplest terms, education already projects and thereby reinforces whatever habits of personal and cultural life are considered to be acceptable and dominant.” The effects of teacher attitudes, beliefs and values, affecting their expectations have been tested repeatedly.
The phenomenon of the "inevitability of war" is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has received considerable study.
The idea is similar to that discussed by the philosopher William James as The Will to Believe. But James viewed it positively, as the self-validation of a belief. Just as, in Merton's example, the belief that a bank is insolvent may help create the fact, so too on the positive side, confidence in the bank's prospects may help brighten them. A more Jamesian example: a swain, convinced that the fair maiden must love him, may prove more effective in his wooing than he would had his initial prophecy been defeatist.
Other specific examples discussed in psychology include:
- Predestination paradox
- Selection bias
- Self efficacy
- Self-defeating prophecy
- Social cognition
- Social perception
- Thomas theorem
References & Bibliography
- Brameld, T. (1972). Education as self-fulfilling prophecy. Phi Beta Kappa 54 (1): 8–11, 58–61 [p. 9]. Quoted by Wilkins (1976), p. 176.
- Wilkins, William E. (1976). The Concept of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Sociology of Education 49 (2): 175–183.
- Allport, G. (1950). "The role of expectancy" Cantrill, H. The Tensions That Cause Wars, 43–78, Urbana: University of Illinois.
- Word, CO., Zanna, M.P. and Cooper, J. (1974) The nonverbal mediation of self-fulfilling prophecies in interracial interaction, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 10: 109-20.
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