The Ultimate Guide to the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Image: Brett Jordan/Unsplash 

Setting goals sounds simple. When a person sets a goal, they probably come across the SMART methodology—Specific, Measurable, Assignable (changed into “Attainable”), Realistic, and Time-related. Yet the nuance that comes with this makes goal-setting extremely complicated. For example, the terms, “Attainable,” and “Realistic,” require not only judgment of the past and the future, as well as our belief in it. Whether we think it’s attainable or realistic, will affect how well we execute our way towards achieving that goal. It’s a version of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words.

This is a phenomenon that runs rampant not only in classic fictional stories—like the tragedy of Oedipus—but also in the physical world. One famous example would be Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s key strengths: the ability to convince himself, and everyone around him, to believe in almost anything. This is now known as his “reality distortion field.” Apple VP of Software Technology Bud Tribble describes it, “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.” “It was a self-fulfilling distortion,” says Debi Coleman, who worked on the original Mac team. “You did the impossible because you didn’t realize it was impossible.” 

In other words, whether or not we achieve our goals actually partially depends on our relationship with the goal and our expectations of ourselves. If we believe ourselves to be capable, we have a shot. If we don’t, then our experience of achieving the goal will come with an additional layer of difficulty or stress. To use a quote typically attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” 

In a sense, we set the goal, and if we set it right, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was only a few decades ago when an early and impactful sociologist applied the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” to sociology and social sciences. 

What is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

In his piece for The Antioch Review, American sociologist Robert K. Merton defines the self-fulfilling prophecy as, “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.” 

Author and professor Tali Sharot elaborates on Merton’s definition in The Optimism Bias, writing, “The idea behind the self-fulfilling prophecy is that it is not a forecast of a future event, but a cause of the event….a prediction has an influence on the event it predicts because people’s behavior is determined by their subjective perception of reality, rather than by objective reality. Therefore, believing in a positive outcome will enhance the probability that the desired outcome will be realized.” Sharot also uses the example of Pat Riley’s self-fulfilling prophecy that “guaranteed” the Lakers a repeat championship.

Much like how artists have been obsessed with self-fulfilling prophecies in storylines, it has also captivated the minds of psychologists and sociologists. There’s no shortage of examples in academia. For example, the pygmalion effect describes when teachers inadvertently provide a better learning experience for students because they believe those students are better learners.

Why are self-fulfilling prophecies important?

Understanding self-fulfilling prophecies is crucial to making opportunities more available to the people who have the skills and knowledge to add value. At his blog Marginal Revolution, author and economist Tyler Cowen writes how over 20 years ago, he worked as a Graduate Director of Admissions, and would offer strong master’s candidates PhD admissions. He writes of the value of raising other people’s aspirations and how they—and the broader world—can stand to benefit. He says that raising expectations is “One of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.” Smaller versions of these interventions work at a large scale.

Similarly, author Seth Godin writes that expectations give us energy and confidence to do difficult work without much immediate gratification. When society sets low expectations of people, it is also stealing these valuable resources from them and their communities. Whether expectations are too low, or too high beyond evidence, we all lose.

“There are limits all around us, stereotypes, unlevel playing fields, systemic challenges where there should be support instead. … The mirror we hold up to the person next to us is one of the most important pictures she will ever see,” he writes. Godin has also talked about how he changed his own negative self-talk by listening to Zig Ziglar tapes, for three hours a day, for three years.

One of the components at the core of making opportunities more accessible to people is the challenge of a stereotype’s effects on performance. In “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans,” Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson define stereotype threat as “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.” They further describe the predicament, in which when a stereotype exists, anything a person does or anything that conforms to it (feature, trait, etc.) make the stereotype more plausible or real as a self-characterization to other people and to themselves. This threat can apply to any group to whom negative stereotypes exist. (Steele, Aronson, “Attitudes and Social Cognition,” 1995). 

There’s evidence to support the validity of the stereotype threat (and its opposite, the stereotype boost). One piece is entitled “Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience and Shifts in Quantitative Performance,” in which co-authors Margaret Shih, Todd L. Pittinsky, Nalini Ambady explored how different stereotypes could affect similar people in the same evaluation. They “found that Asian-American women performed better on a mathematics test when their ethnic identity was activated, but worse when their gender identity was activated, compared with a control group who had neither identity activated.” Another paper shows similar effects of this study in a larger scale experiment.

Practical Ways to Tell Self-Fulfilling Prophecies that Lead to More Positive Outcomes

I’ve long nursed a curiosity about unrealistic expectations and faking it till you make it, and noticed in many patterns of books and interviews from successful people that an expectation or belief to succeed—confidence!—seemed to be a necessity. Here are a couple of practical ways to apply these insights to your life:

Slow Down, Be Open, and Stay Present

In The Luck Factor, author and professor Richard Wiseman observed that lucky people tend to notice opportunities that unlucky people don’t. He writes, “My work revealed that the extremely different expectations held by lucky and unlucky people had the potential to transform into especially powerful self-fulfilling prophecies and this, in turn, explained why lucky people frequently achieved their dreams, whilst unlucky people did not.” Simply by choosing to believe the possibility that you’re lucky will cause you to slow down throughout the day and be more mindful of opportunities. 

Wiseman describes an experiment in which two people participated in the same controlled scenario, to two very different outcomes. He writes:

We created two potential ‘chance’ opportunities for both Martin and Brenda. We placed a crisp £5 note on the pavement directly outside the coffee shop. Martin and Brenda would have to walk past it to enter the shop-but would they notice the money? We also re-arranged the coffee shop so that it only contained four tables, and placed a stooge at each. One of them was a successful businessman; the others were not. All four people were instructed to behave in exactly the same way, regardless of whether it was Brenda or Martin in the coffee shop. Would Brenda and Martin make the most of the opportunity?

One participant, Martin, who had described themselves as lucky saw the bill, ordered a coffee, and sat beside the businessman. He also introduced himself and bought him a coffee. Conversely, the other participant, Brenda, who had described herself as unlucky, didn’t see the bill, ordered a coffee, and sat down next to the businessman at a table and kept to herself. She described her morning as “uneventful.” 

Cultivate Conviction by Asking Yourself, “Why Not Me?”

If you’ve ever experienced imposter’s syndrome or being underestimated, you might be led to believe that you don’t deserve something—even if you’ve done all the work to earn it or qualify for it. As investor Charlie Munger says, “To get what you want, you have to deserve what you want. The world is not yet a crazy enough place to reward a whole bunch of undeserving people.” In other words, working hard, working smart, or being easy to work with isn’t enough—you need to have conviction that you deserve what you earned.

In his book, Often Wrong, Never in Doubt, author, TV personality, and advertising executive Donny Deutsch suggests the reader to ask, “Why not me?” to provoke confidence and conviction. His idea is that good things won’t happen until you think that you deserve it. He writes:

In order to pitch $10-million accounts, you’ve got to say, “We should be pitching.” Who’s going to get that $10-million account? Why not me? Why stop at $10 million? Or $100 million accounts? Why not me? Whenever I say those words to people, they laugh. They hear their own wheels turning, they realize how far they are from acting on that kind of question, and they laugh.

Deutsch learned this lesson when one of the people he first hired, a man named Richie, left the company to start his own agency with a partner. Richie’s new agency was experiencing immense success, and Deutsch was left wondering, what did they have that he didn’t? From having worked with Richie, Deutsch knew his skills, intellect, and work ethic weren’t far beyond his own. He writes:

What hit me was that Richie went into his new company saying, “We’re going to be the next hot agency,’ and worked back from there. “What do I have to do?” He’d figured, “If I want a hot agency, I’ve got to do a specific type of work that not only pleases the client but is also going to get a certain kind of attention.”

Me? I wasn’t even dreaming that David Deutsch Associates would get written up in New York. We had been grinding all along but never thought it was possible. Million-dollar clients? Out of our league. If someone had asked me, “Why shouldn’t you have the next hot agency?” I’d have had every answer in the world except the right one. Richie Kirshenbaum showed me I was wrong. Why couldn’t we do work like I was reading about? That could be us. That should be us. We could pitch anybody. But first we had to own it. If we wanted to be written about, we’d first have to create the kind of ads that garner attention. Why not me? From then on I started to do ads that would make waves.

Lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson worked for 16 years to free Anthony Hinton. In A Knock at Midnight, author and lawyer Brittany K. Barnett paraphrases a lesson she learned from Stevenson, “In order to get people free, you have to believe you can. You have to believe in things you cannot see, with conviction in your heart.” It’s the same type of psychological posture and conviction that Deutsch describes, albeit with a much more civic purpose.

Be Mindful of the Prophecies You’re Making

There’s a fine line between believing and not believing, marked by factors like evidence, believability, credibility, proof of concept, and support. If you tell yourself you’re going to do something, but don’t actually believe in it, you’re getting in your own way. You’re also sending a conflicting message to the people around you, whose support could affect the outcome of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
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