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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Self-fulfilling prophecy

An initial expectation that is confirmed by the behavior it elicits.

One's beliefs about other people determine how one acts towards them, and thus play a role in determining the behavior that results. Experiments have demonstrated this process in a variety of settings. In one of the best-known examples, teachers were told (falsely) that certain students in their class were "bloomers" on the verge of dramatic intellectual development. When the students were tested eight months later, the "special" students outperformed their peers, fulfilling the prediction that had been made about them. During the intervening period, the teachers had apparently behaved in ways that facilitated the students' intellectual development, perhaps by giving them increased attention and support and setting higher goals for them.

In another experiment, a group of men became acquainted with a group of women by telephone after seeing what they thought were pictures of their "partners." The supposedly attractive women were considered more interesting and intelligent. Researchers concluded that the men's own behavior had been more engaging toward those women whom they thought were attractive, drawing livelier responses than the men who thought their partners were unattractive.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies if members of disadvantaged groups are discouraged from setting ambitious goals because of other people's low expectations. The term self-fulfilling prophecy can also refer to the effect that people's beliefs about themselves have on their own behavior. Those who expect to succeed at a task, for example, tend to be more successful than those who believe they will fail.

Further Reading

Halloran, James D. Attitude Formation and Change. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Harvey, Terri L., Ann L. Orbuch, and John H. Weber, eds. Attributions, Accounts, and Close Relationships. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992.

Weary, Gifford. Attribution. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Wyer, R. S., and T. K. Srull, eds. Handbook of Social Cognition. 2d ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

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self-fulfilling prophecy

self-fulfilling prophecy A concept introduced into sociology by Robert Merton (see his Social Theory and Social Structure, 1957)
, and allied to William Isaac Thomas's earlier and famous theorem that ‘when people define situations as real, they become real in their consequences’. Merton suggests the self-fulfilling prophecy is an important and basic process in society, arguing that ‘in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evokes a new behaviour which makes the originally false conception come true. [It] perpetuates a reign of error’. See also SELF-DESTROYING PROPHECY; UNINTENDED OR UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES.

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self-fulfilling prophecy

self-fulfilling prophecy, a concept developed by Robert K. Merton to explain how a belief or expectation, whether correct or not, affects the outcome of a situation or the way a person (or group) will behave. Thus, for example, labeling someone a "criminal," and treating that person as such, may foster criminal behavior in the person who is subjected to the expectation.

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