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The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy: Making Expectations Come True

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Case Vignette:

“He was in 8th grade and was 13 years old. In school, he did the best he could to not pay attention, read or study, nor pay attention in class. In point of fact, he was unwittingly did all he could to convince his family and teachers that he was not smart. Actually, he believed he was not smart. Then, one day, when his guidance counselor was talking to him about his future, the counselor, looking at his school record said, ” Well, we need people to work in grocery stores too!” That was his wake up call. fourteen years later he graduated the University with his PhD in clinical psychology.”

The self-Fulfilling Prophesy, also know as the “Pygmalion Effect,” goes in a circle that looks something like this:

1. I have a belief about myself. 2. That belief influences my actions towards others. 3. This has an impact on the beliefs that others have about me. 4. As a result, this impact causes others to behave in ways towards me that is consistent with my self belief. 5. When this happens, my belief is reinforced. 6 This continues in an endless cycle. In other words, I have a belief about myself and have an expectation that it will be fulfilled. Clearly, the self-fulfilling prophesy always involves two or more people. There is the self and then there is another person or many other persons reacting to the self.

In the case above, the 8th grade student believed and then convinced everyone that he was not smart. It was only when his guidance counselor angered him that he decided to prove everyone wrong and, in the process, proved to himself that he was smart. The outcome could have been very different.

Here is an example of how this works:

“Let’s say, for example, that I’m going to a party where I don’t know many people. If I believe I don’t make a good first impression, or I worry that nobody will talk to me, I will probably enter the party acting awkward, anxious, and standoffish. In turn, people are likely to interact with me with less enthusiasm, or they may ignore or shun me. Which only reinforces my belief that I’m not good with people I don’t know.”

Here is another example of how our expectations influence the beliefs and behaviors of others:

“This self fulfilling prophecy concept has been verified by many experiments and observations, and if we look at our own lives we can often see it happening in our lives in various situations. For example, parents who believe that their children will not do well in school tend to make it come true by reducing emphasis on the importance of school work to their children and accepting poor grades from them. On the other hand, parents who believe their children can excel in school will create a home environment suitable in promoting reading and knowledge, emphasize the importance of school work and generally will not tolerate poor grade from their kids. All these will eventually propel their children to excel in school.”

This can happen on a national level. Stereotyping has the same kind of effect portrayed in the examples above. If people view a minority group as being inferior, behaves towards them as though they are, the members of the minority group can begin to behave in ways that are consistent with the stereotype. Of course, this is what is referred to as prejudice and racial hatred. Stereotyping anyone is damaging because of the effect in can have on others. Countless numbers of minority kids in the public schools respond as expected if the teacher expectation is that they will fail.

Be careful of your own self-fulfilling prophesy. Your expectation of yourself can be made by you to come true.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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