The Self Fulfilling Prophecy

Back in the 1950s a number of researchers began to realize that when people act on a belief, they create a reality to match that belief. This idea was developed further by Dr. Robert K. Merton, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, who pointed out that even when the original belief is false, people make it come true. We humans seem to prefer that other people behave as we expect them to, and we will modify or distort reality until it conforms to our expectations. And we can do this without even being aware we are doing it!

One of the most famous studies done on the SFP was published in a book called Pygmalion in the Classroom.If you remember your Greek mythology, Pygmalion was the sculptor who carved a statue of a beautiful woman, then fell in love with it. He believed so strongly that it could come to life, that it did! Hence, the SFP is also called ‘The Pygmalion Effect.’

A Harvard professor, Dr. Robert Rosenthal, collected the results of over 300 studies showing the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in action. In classroom experiments, a group of children were divided into two classes. One class was given to a teacher who was told that the students were high achievers and should do well. The other teacher was told that her class was composed of underachievers who needed special help.

At the beginning of the school year there was no difference between the two groups of children in terms of ability. By the end of the school year the class that was labeled ‘high-achievers’ was doing better than average work. The class that had been labeled as ‘underachievers’ was doing below-average work. Furthermore, a careful study revealed that children who made gains in the ‘high achiever’ group were generally better liked by their teacher, but the children who made gains in the ‘underachiever’ class were generally less liked by their teacher!

In summarizing this research, it can be said that people prefer people who live up to their expectations, and that people unconsciously create situations that encourage the expected behavior. If the expectations are positive, people (in this case, students) are encouraged to behave positively. If the expectations are negative, people (again, the children in the class) are encouraged to behave negatively.

There has been plenty of research that shows this Self-Fulfilling Prophecy effect in job situations. Since we do it so unconsciously, adults are no more immune to its effects than children are. Remember too that this effect usually occurs despite the fact that the person with the expectation is usually unconscious of the effect he/she is having.

For example: Dr. Albert King did a study with a number of welder trainees. All the trainees had scored approximately equal in aptitude testing before the training started. However, their trainer was told that five of the men had shown high aptitude on their tests. (Remember, this was not true!) AT the end of the training course, these five men had an amazing record. They had been absent fewer times than the other men, they had learned the welding skills in half the time, and they scored ten points higher than the others in a comprehensive welding test given at the end of the course.

Furthermore, when the other trainees were asked to rate each other in terms of whom they most wanted to work with, each wanted most to work with one of the five ‘high aptitude’ men.

Somehow, both the trainer and the other trainees had encouraged these five men to meet their expectation. They had created a true reality out of a false belief. In every possible way, without consciously meaning to do so, they gave the five trainees messages that said ‘Don’t worry; we know you’ll do well.’ With all that subliminal encouragement, it’s easy to understand why those five trainees developed a positive attitude towards themselves and their work.

In studying the Pygmalion effect close-up, we have found a number of ways in which these expectations are transmitted and encouraged to become reality:

1) Climate: The entire package of non-verbal signals encourages or discourages the worker. Think of how much a smile or a friendly tome of voice can mean to you.

2) Feedback: More positive responses encourage; more negative ones discourage. Even if a worker makes a mistake, you can respond in two ways. ‘Not again! You’d better learn to do it right’ is very disheartening. ‘Not bad, but you might find it easier to try it this way instead’ sounds helpful and encouraging.

3) Amount of input: If we have positive expectations about a worker, we tend to give that person more information to help them along. If we have negative expectations, we tend not to bother to give information.

4) Amount of output: We expect more work from a good worker than a poor one. Saying ‘Don’t bother to tackle that job; I know you’ll never do it right’ discourages an employee from taking on any new responsibilities.

What you expect to come true is often what you make come true. You may have seen this in everyday life. We all know at least one pessimist who expects things to go badly, and is always complaining about the things that have gone badly. And we all know at least one optimist who expects good things to happen. The optimist doesn’t dwell on the negative, but rather continues to work on the positive, making those good things happen more often.

It should be clear from this research that far more important than the skills you learn are the attitudes with which you apply those skills. You must look carefully at what you expect from the group you are working with. Of course, you need to develop realistic expectations. You cannot, for example, expect people to do a job in one day that logically requires a week to accomplish.

However, within these reasonable limits, the most important thing you can do to increase productivity is to expect the best of people. To expect that they will give you their best efforts. To expect that they will want to meet their goals. To expect that they would prefer to do a good job.

Whether you are unconscious of your expectations or not, those attitudes will influence how you treat everyone who works with you! The best way to ensure that your influence if positive is to become conscious of your expectations and to develop them into positive feelings for all your workers.

3 Responses to “The Self Fulfilling Prophecy”

  1. [...] Dr. Madeline Daniels explains the self-fulfilling prophecy of how encouraging legitimate self-esteem brings real achievement. [...]

  2. You have hit the nail one the head. People become what others program them to become. They also self program themselves into sucess or failure. Excellent article.

  3. Randolph says:

    Wow, I’m on the fence here now thinking about this one. Dare I be negative and say, “Do you know how much this information goes against the grain of most parents, teachers, and CEOs?” or should I be positive and say, “OK, Now I have much higher expectations from the people around me because positive attitude gets positive feedback.”

    Spiritually, out of goodness, We have to be positive. We are spiritual beings. As such we have that ability to make things happen – good or bad. Researchers like Gregg Braden have already proven that we affect our own DNA and that of others around us through our prayers, our feelings, and our beliefs.

    Let’s make the best of our gifts.