Updated: Aug 13, 2020
You may predict that an assignment you are working on will turn out great and feel confident in your ability to foresee the future once your hard work pays off. Alternatively, you might expect that a presentation you must give will go terribly and feel no surprise when you stutter and forget content. These instances might mislead you into thinking that you know yourself and your abilities well (which may also be true), but before definite conclusion, take into consideration effects that expectations have on your behaviour.
When our beliefs and expectations influence our behaviour at the subconscious level, we fall under the phenomenon called a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Self-fulfilling prophecy may sound mystical but there is nothing mystical about. It is a concept perfectly explainable by basic psychological and social laws. It comes true because we are acting as it is already true. Our expectation that we will see a particular outcome changes our behaviour, which shapes the way we and others perceive ourselves. In turn, others provide the feedback we have set ourselves up to get, which serves to reinforce the original belief.
First, let me give a simple example, devoid of any kind of social influence. How many times did a thought pass through you head that something will fall out of your hand just a second before it fell out? It is a right thing to ask whether it would have fallen out if we hadn’t thought about falling out beforehand? Probably not. By thinking about potential “falling out” your attention shifted to an automatic activity you do routinely (holding items). Our organism can do many complex actions without conscious attention. However, when paying attention to a routine activity, our mind receives signal that something is wrong and that additional activation, strain or caution is needed. That extra moment is a moment that confuses our brain and body so that an item falls out of our hand.
Including social factors, our experience gets more complicated. As kids we receive feedbacks that are evaluations about ourselves and our behaviour. In relation to that feedbacks we learn to make conclusions about ourselves and the world. If adults praise the kid, it is easier for him to believe that he is valuable, and that world is not a bad place to live in. Others may have complete opposite experience growing up and live with the idea that life hurts and they are not good enough to deal with that. Once we decide about ourselves, others, and the world, later in life we do think and behave in a certain way trying to justify and confirm our learnings. We do that by (unconsciously) deciding to be optimists, see good in everything, setting realistic goals and working around circumstances to achieve them. Then we march as winners. “Loser’s” life stories build up the same way but by opposite principles. For them is easy to get into dark cognition: “I’m not capable of success”, “Bigger goals are unreachable”, “I was given only bad opportunities”. People with beliefs like this are likely to unconsciously reject every good opportunity that comes their way, not strive to create opportunities themselves and sabotage themselves on the way of success. Failure will easily fit into that basic experience sounding something like this: „You see, nothing goes well for me, I’m bad and this world is so cruel to me!”.
Going to the party where you expect to meet a lot of unknown people can have different outcome for your experience of that party regarding of for initial attitude. If you believe you don’t make good impression on people, or expect lousy interactions, you are likely to enter that party acting awkward and anxious. By your acting unapproachable, people there are likely ignore you or interact with you with less enthusiasm, which in turn reinforces the belief that you are not good in interacting with strangers. If, by contrast, you enter the party expecting to make new friends, act curious and engaging, it will result in people responding to you amiably and you may indeed make new friends.
A good example is a child who recently moved to a new school. Child’s beliefs that he or she is unlikeable and incapable of making new friends, whether true or not, affect the way child acts while in school. A child acting shy will prevent other kids to approach him or her. In this scenario, the new child inevitably fulfils his or her own prophecy of other children treating them.
A student’s thinking he is not smart enough to pass the subject will produce anxiety before solving tasks. Anxiety acts to interfere with concentration and functioning of the working memory. That is, performance on the job impairs. As anxiety is perceived as a manifestation of minor abilities, his initial recognition is confirmed. Studying requires work and effort to succeed in it.
Examples that confirm power of expectations can be found in every single field of our lives. We all live somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy (which does not have to be necessarily negative). Problems arise when it comes to beliefs that are of great importance to the well-being of a person (e.g. family, love, friendship, parenthood, etc.). Self-fulfilling schemes are most commonly born in childhood, and to change them precondition is their recognition.
If you have impression that things do not go your way, you give up too easily, don’t have enough energy or faith in yourself, and that others are doing better, remember that it is not about bad karma or lucky stars. All the decisions, even ones that we live by unconsciously, are possible to change. To be successful in something, it is necessary to gradually build the “I can do it” confession. Alone or with someone’s help.
Take a moment for introspection. What are the ways that self-fulfilling prophecies operate in your life? What is holding you back?