Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Theory Explained

By Ayesh Perera, published Feb 02, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • A self-fulfilling prophecy is the psychosociological phenomenon whereby one expects something, and eventually experiences the realization of this expectation simply because one anticipates it and one’s consequent conduct aligns to fulfill the original expectation (Biggs, 2013).
  • Robert Merton introduced the term in 1948 to denote a “false definition of the situation evoking a behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1968).
  • Self-fulfilling prophecies can yield both negative and positive results, and the interpersonal communication whereby this process often transpires can have enormous implications for society.
  • For example, the labelling of students can have definite effects on achievement. Sociologists have argued that one consequence is the self-fulfilling prophecy – students labelled as “underachievers” or “troublemakers” will eventually live up to their label.

The 4 Stages

A self-fulfilling prophecy can be divided into 4 stages in a cycle:

  1. How we act toward other people influences what they believe about us.
  2. What they believe concerning us dictates their behavior toward us.
  3. Their behavior toward us influences our beliefs concerning ourselves.
  4. Our beliefs about ourselves, in turn, influence how we act toward others, bringing us back to the first stage.

The Pygmalion Effect Loop


The Pygmalion Effect

Labelling of students can have definite effects on achievement. Sociologists have argued that one consequence is the self-fulfilling prophecy – students labelled as “underachievers” or “troublemakers” will eventually live up to their label.

Also known as the Rosenthal effect, the Pygmalion effect refers to the phenomenon wherein high expectations in a certain sphere of endeavor can yield improved performance (Mitchell & Daniels, 2003).

Drawing on the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a beautiful statue he had made and asked the gods to give him a wife resembling the sculpture (which request the gods eventually granted), Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson released their book Pygmalion in the Classroom, promoting the view that educators’ expectations for students can impact student performance (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

In their study, Rosenthal and Jacobson observed students in a California elementary school (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). At the outset of the study, a disguised IQ examination was administered to the students. However, the scores were not revealed to the teachers.

  • A class of students were administered an IQ test.
  • 20% of the class were selected and random, and the teachers were told that they should be expected to make faster academic progress
  • The researchers returned a year later to administer another IQ test and examine the school reports of the children in the study.

The teachers were merely informed that about 20% of the students were ‘bloomers’ who could be expected to outperform their classmates. Only the names of the purported ‘bloomers’ were unveiled to the teachers.

While the educators anticipated little from the average children, they paid enormous attention to the ‘bloomers’ by calling upon them in class more often and providing them with more comprehensive feedback when they erred (Schaedig, 2020).

Unbeknownst to the teachers, however, the so-called ‘bloomers’ were merely a randomly selected group from the student population. Nonetheless, 8 months later, when the children were given another IQ test, the results indicated that the scores of the ‘bloomers’ had increased significantly in comparison to those of the other children.

The outcome of the study seemed to indicate that the teachers’ expectations, which had altered their treatment of the children, had influenced the children’s ability.

Critical Evaluation

Based on this evidence, Rosenthal and Jacobson argued that they had “proved” that the self-fulfilling prophecy was an actual phenomenon. The label will have implications for the teachers’ expectations of the student. For instance, they may only interpret the students’ behaviour in terms of the label.

However, there are a few notes of caution in the study…

  • It is based on IQ tests which, as we have seen, are not necessarily a valid measure of ability – even supporters of IQ testing have criticised the design of Rosenthal & Jacobson’s test.
  • The study was based on a small sample of children (and teachers), and consequently may not be representative. How do we know that the responses were not just because these teachers and students were particularly susceptible to labelling (answer: we don’t).
  • The study involved the researcher’s attempting to control the students’ environment. As we will see within research methods, this leads them open to the criticism that the situation they studied was artificial rather than natural.

The Golem Effect

The Pygmalion effect’s theoretical counterpart, known as the Golem effect, is the psychological phenomenon whereby low expectations of supervisors result in poorer performance by their subordinates (Babad, Inbar & Rosenthal, 1982).

The Golem effect is named after the Jewish mythological creature called golem who was supposedly animated by Rabbi Loew of Prague to protect the Jews therein. As time progressed however, the golem grew increasingly corrupt and spiraled out of control.

Eventually, therefore, it had to be destroyed. Rosenthal, Inbar and Babad borrowed the term in addressing the concerns of educators and social scientists over the adverse effects of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Rosenthal, Inbar and Babad observed that when teachers negatively and dogmatically treat students whom they perceive to be of low potential, the students’ performance of various specially designed tasks suffered.

Building upon the discoveries of the Golem effect, Eden and Davidson have noted that there are absolute and relative Golem effects (Davidson & Eden, 2000). The former transpires when some members of a group are actually unqualified to be part of it.

Thus, once they have been identified as low tier, these individuals’ failure to meet the group’s performance standards would be exposed. The latter, the relative Golem effect, however, involves a situation wherein all the members of a group meet the requisite standards.

Nonetheless, in any group, relative performance would create an internal low tier. Consequently, when highly skilled performers fall into this category simply because of their performance relative to that of others within the group, perceptions concerning the former could have a detrimental effect.

The negative perceptions could lead to degrading treatment which could, in turn, worsen the performance of the low-tier individuals. Such trends could devastate organizations.

Eden and Davidson, however, have proposed various ‘de-Golemization’ measures to mitigate such outcomes (Oz & Eden, 1994).

The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect exemplifies another instance of self-fulfillment prophecy. A placebo is a treatment destitute of therapeutic value, involving procedures such as sham surgery, sugar pills and saline injections (Arnstein, Broglio, Wuhrman & Kean, 2011).

However, sometimes, placebos can effect the salutary amendment of a patient’s condition. They can support the chemical process of the body and relieve pain. Placebos may mitigate and even remove certain symptoms.

The phenomenon shows how, at times, expectations can have an impact resembling the effects of actual medication.


Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is a predicament wherein individuals are placed at the risk of conforming to stereotypes attached to their respective social groups (Steele, 1997). Stereotype threat may increase based upon situational factors such as the relevance of the stereotype to a specific task, difficulties associated therewith, and the belief that the assigned task gauges ability.

Additionally, the expectation of discrimination on account of identification with a negatively stereotyped group can have a profound impact (Steele, Spencer & Aronson, 2002).

All these factors can increase stereotype threat and engender a vicious cycle of decreased confidence, subpar performance and loss of interest in a task/field (Gilovich, Keltner & Nisbett, 2006).

According to the theory, the members of a negatively stereotyped group could become anxious concerning the relevant task, and thus, fail to deliver at their potential. It is hypothesized that anxiety could diminish working memory, thereby hindering optimal performance (Beilock, Rydell & McConnell, 2007).

Causal Loop

Self-fulfilling prophecy could be a causality or feedback loop, a system whose aspects influence each other in a repeating cycle (Schaedig, 2020). Once the cycle begins, removing oneself from its uncontrollable outcomes and actions becomes exceedingly difficult.

self-fulfilling prophecy

A striking example of the causal loop could be how a rumor that banks are failing, if permitted to proliferate, could actually lead to a bank collapse. Herein, initially, in response to the panic produced by the rumor, people would hastily withdraw their money from the banks.

Consequently, the banks would actually start struggling. When this occurs, more people would rush to take out their money. The vicious cycle would repeat until the banks eventually collapse.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, Feb 02). Self fulfilling prophecy. Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

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