Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right. -Henry Ford
Self-fulfilling prophecies describe predictions of a situation that can change our thoughts and behaviors, thus becoming real. Essentially, self-fulfilling prophecies are the concept that beliefs and expectations can create their reality.
Our beliefs about ourselves affect our actions towards others. Our actions towards others influence other people’s beliefs about us.
Their beliefs cause their actions towards us.
Their actions reinforce our beliefs about ourselves.
This feedback loop can become self-fulfilling. We become entrenched with our thoughts and behaviors as it becomes increasingly difficult to break the cycle.
An example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the placebo effect. While testing new treatments, patients are randomly split into two groups. One group will receive the new treatment, and one will receive a placebo (treatment with no therapeutic value, such as sugar pills, saline injections, etc.).
Patients in the placebo group have shown improvements in their medical issues even though they didn’t get any active agent. Placebo treatments might make us feel better, but they are no cure. This is known as the placebo effect, which is deeply tied to our expectations and beliefs about the treatment.
There are two types of self-fulfilling prophecies: self-imposed (our expectations influence our actions) and other-imposed (other people’s expectations influence our actions).
In a self-imposed prophecy, a person’s expectations cause the person’s actions.
Let’s say Michael believes the world is an unfriendly place. As such, he is not friendly to other people, grunts at their greetings, avoids celebrations. In return, people will stop acting nice towards him, ignoring then actively avoiding him. For Michael, it becomes more evident that people are unfriendly.
Let’s say Emma does not believe that her relationships can become more meaningful. Therefore, she avoids emotionally investing too much in her relationships, causing her partners or friends to feel ignored and pushed away. As such, her partners are more inclined to unfriend or break up with her. These actions reinforce Emma’s initial beliefs that she was right to keep love or friendship away.
Believing in horoscopes or fortune-tellers are examples of other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies.
Another example of this variation of self-fulfilling prophecies is priming (to prepare someone for an event so that they know what is expected of them). Priming examples are ubiquitous. If parents or teachers expect us to fail an exam, we most likely will fail. If our friends or family don’t have many hopes we will pass a job interview, most likely we won’t succeed in that job interview.
Unfortunately, society labels people according to race, gender, education, parents, social class, etc. Labeling is linked to self-fulfilling prophecies because we tend to become what other people expect us to become. Such beliefs are at the root of racial or gender discrimination.
Self-stereotyping or self-discrimination is often self-reinforcing: we tend to behave differently when we are primed and reminded of parts of our identity, such as gender, nationality, race, etc.
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo describe in their book Good Economics for Hard Times experiments about priming and self-stereotyping.
For example, female college students performed better on complex mathematics tests, which had a note that said:
In another experiment, black students performed similarly to white students when they were told the test was “a laboratory problem-solving task”. However, they scored much lower once they were told the test was meant to measure their intellectual ability.
Another study showed the effects of racial priming on white male students. Researchers selected white male students who received high scores on the math portion of the SAT (a standardized test used for college admission in the US). These students did worse on a math test when they were told the experiment was about “why Asians appear to outperform other students on tests of math ability.”
Then, the Pygmalion experiment from the 1960s. Teachers were tricked into believing a part of their classroom was intellectually gifted and, thus, expected to develop much faster than their peers. In reality, the “gifted” group was randomly selected and almost identical to the rest of the classroom. The students considered “gifted” gained twelve IQ points over the scholar year, whereas their colleagues gained only eight IQ points. Why was that?
Researchers found that the teachers didn’t have many expectations for the “average” children, so they focused on the “gifted” children. Teachers spent more time with the “gifted” children, gave them more detailed feedback, they called on them to answer more often. The teachers’ high expectations remodeled the way they treated “gifted” children. This change in teachers’ behavior influenced the “gifted” children’s intellectual abilities.
These findings are replicated not only in academic contexts. For example, researchers at the University of Zurich recruited bankers, asked them to flip a coin ten times and report their results. If participants had more than a threshold number of heads (or tails), they would get the equivalent of 20 US dollars for each extra head or tail they reported. Nobody checked if the bankers reported their outcomes accurately (this will soon become obvious why). Before the experiment started, researchers asked one group of bankers to list their favorite hobbies (they were primed with a “regular” person identity).
Researchers asked another group questions about their role as bankers (priming participants with their banker identity). The study showed that those bankers that were reminded about their identity as bankers reported many more heads or tails, in fact so many that it couldn’t be by chance. The estimated cheating rate was around 3% for those thinking about themselves as regular people. What about the cheating rate for those thinking of themselves as bankers? 16%.
From vicious cycle to virtuous cycle
Instead of make-believe (pretending that what is not real is real, such as imaginary settings used for children’s games and stories), self-fulfilling prophecies are believe-make. We believe them until we become them.
Our story is a social tapestry, with threads of subtle or powerful socio-cultural and educational factors intertwined in all kinds of shapes and colors, and sounds. Because of that, there will always be limits to what we can achieve. Limits are imposed by our mind, by society, or by current events. For example, achieving or overcoming our intellectual abilities depends highly on our current cultural environment. We can be the next Einstein, but we grow to feel lucky if we can recognize numbers in a culture that doesn’t nurture our natural talents.
One definition of FEAR is “Future Events Appearing Real”.
Without conscious actions on our part, future events might appear real, where fear is permeating our thoughts and relationships. And yet, there is hope.
Our behaviours, our experiences, our thinking, and our social world shape our brains.
Who you are today is not the same person who went to sleep last night. We now know that your experiences during the day are integrated into your brain circuits while you are asleep. So, that you wake up in the morning, your brain is updated. You can take advantage of this to become a different person than you were last week, last month, or last year because your brain is different, and you can guide the process. – Barbara Oakley
We can employ the Pygmalion effect to our benefit. By stretching and challenging our abilities, we can outgrow our environment. Note that unrealistic ambitions can result in failure which can undermine our confidence.
It might look like prophecies are written in stone, hard-wired, and resistant to change. But look closely, beneath the hurt, the pain, the fear, and you can see the prophecies for what they rightfully are. Playdough.
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/between-the-limits-of-self-fulfilling-prophecies/
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