PSY322-Self-fulfilling prophecy

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Every day there are expectations placed on us by our family members, friends, and even complete strangers. Whether intentional or not, to some degree we allow these expectations to guide our behaviors and beliefs. In fact, research has found evidence that even under contradictory circumstances, such as incompatible stereotypes, the expectations of other people play a strong role in how we act (Levy & Leifheit-Limson, 2009). As a result of the relationship between expectations and behavior, the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy occurs. Specifically, self-fulfilling prophecy is when people develop expectations about another person, causing them to behave a certain way toward them, which in turn causes the person to exhibit behavior that is consistent with what was initially expected of them (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2007). Expectations that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies can be either positive or negative and can sometimes be a result of stereotypical beliefs.

Although we would like to believe that other people expect the best of us that is not always the case. When the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy was first introduced by Robert Merton in 1948, it was described as resulting from “false” perceptions that act as a trigger for novel actions, which then cause the false perceptions to actually happen (Tauber, 1997). According to Natanovich and Eden (2008), this negative consequence of self-fulfilling prophecy is known as the Golem effect. In Yiddish, Golem stands for “oaf”, which is slang for stupid. According to Jewish folklore, Golem was a creature that others thought was a monster so it became a monster (Madon, Jussim, & Eccles, 1997). It also led to the saying that if you “expect oafs […] you will get oafs” (Natanovich & Eden, 2008, p. 1383). In other words, when a person is given minimal expectations they will produce that same minimal outcome, thus satisfying the theory of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In more recent years researchers have begun to focus on how positive expectations can lead to positive self-fulfilling prophecies. Specifically, the Pygmalion effect, a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, begins with high expectations and leads to increased performances, which can be useful in school and work settings (Natanovich & Eden, 2008; Hinnant, O’Brien, & Ghazarian, 2009). A study on teacher expectations found a larger difference in reading skills when teachers overestimated children’s capabilities then they did a decrease in situations where there was underestimation (Hinnant, Obrien, & Ghazarian, 2009). Another area where Pygmalion effects are of great interest is in the parent-child relationship. In a study done on a parent’s expectations of alcohol use, it was found that children were more inclined to live up to a mother’s optimistic expectations, as opposed to fulfilling negative beliefs (Willard et al., 2008).

A main factor for determining expectations is through the use of stereotypes, which can influence people’s behaviors and lead to self-fulfilling prophecies (Levy & Leifheit-Limson, 2009). As a short-cut, people often rely on stereotypes to quickly develop expectations, however this type of automatic thinking can be riddled with incorrect assumptions, which can lead to the Golem effect (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2007). For example, people often assume that elderly adults have poor cognitive and physical abilities. A study conducted by Levy & Leifheit-Limson (2009) investigated this stereotype by placing positive or negative expectations on older individuals and found that these expectations had a significant self-fulfilling prophecy effect on their performances. In society, discriminatory stereotypes placed on minority groups may also lead to self-fulfilling prophecy. Word, Zanna, and Cooper (1974) investigated how white interviewers treated African American applicants and found that negative, nonverbal behaviors used by interviewers lead the applicant to perform poorly. In using stereotypes, people create false realities that could possibly lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy of not just one person, but an entire group of people (Judice & Neuberg, 1998).

Example – Research

To examine further how self-fulfilling prophecies arise in the interview process, Judice and Neuberg (1998) studied the effects of positive and negative expectations combined with goal-oriented motivations on employment interviews. The research question was whether negative expectations created prior to the interview combined with a goal of accuracy or expectation-confirmation would affect the behavior of the interviewer and lead the applicant to confirm their expectations. Based on previous research on interviewer bias, the researchers hypothesized that the accuracy-motivated condition would gather more comprehensive information, allowing the applicants in the negative-expectations condition to perform favorably and have an unbiased opinion of their interview performance. However, in the confirmation-goal condition they predicted that the interviewer would be deceptive in trying to confirm their negative-expectations which would lead the applicant to give a weak performance, as well as misjudge the quality of the interview they gave.

In order to test their hypothesis and reduce subject-expectancy effects, the researchers had to use deception by concealing the real purpose of the study. Instead they informed the participants they were interested in the differences between in-person versus phone interviews. Using a 2 X 2 factorial design, the participants designated to be interviewers were assigned to one condition for each of the two independent variables. The first was the expectation variable where interviewers were given applicants personality-data that was either a negative-expectation or no-expectation condition. The second variable of interviewer-goal was manipulated by the experimenter who told the interviewers to either “select the best applicant for the job” (accuracy) or “to [trust] your initial expectations and impressions” (confirmation). Several dependent measures were gathered after the simulated interview. To assess the content of the interviews without bias, independent judges scored the interviewers behaviors toward the applicant; including their warmth, interest, quality of questioning, tone, etc. Independent judges were also asked to assess the applicant’s performance on traits such as confidence, interpersonal skills, responsibility, motivation, etc. Lastly, the interviewers were given the same evaluation of the applicant that the independent judges would complete, and the applicants were asked to rate their own performance and that of their interviewer.

As a result of the study, the researcher’s prediction was confirmed that the confirmation-goal when paired with negative-expectations would result in the applicant having a lower performance score, but an overestimation of their own performance. It was found that interviewers who needed to confirm their negative-expectations asked the applicants less questions, yet they expressed more warmth toward them. It was also confirmed that applicants interviewed by those who needed to be accurate received more probing questions, were shown more interest, and were viewed as more favorable; thus receiving high performance scores. The implication of this research is that when entering into a situation with preconceived expectations, whether positive or negative, it can influence how we behave and lead a person to confirm our expectations.

Example – Real-Life

Often people are not surprised when they hear about the arrest or unexpected death of a once child star. In The Cultural Significance of the Child Star, by Jane O’Connor (2008), it points out that child stars in Western culture are most recognized for becoming addicts and perceived as having ruinous adulthoods. It is expected that the combination of an overbearing “stage parent” and a lost childhood leads these children to suffer psychological breakdowns. It is also thought that entertainers feel that their fame places them above the law, which can be exaggerated by the immaturity of child stars. O’Connor also goes on to point out that media perpetuates the disastrous outcomes of child stars by featuring only those that have had troubles during and after their entertainment career, but rarely mention ones who become successful adults. By focusing only on unfavorable outcomes of child stars in our culture we are creating and maintaining a negative stereotype of them, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

An example of this may be found in the life and death of Brad Renfro. Unlike many child stars, Renfro did not have the overbearing stage parent pushing him to act and miss his childhood (Yahoo movies). He was discovered at an open-casting call and thrusted into the lime-light at the age of eleven. He proved to be very talented and received numerous awards for his performances. With fame and money influencing him, it wasn’t long before he became involved in the Hollywood party-scene. With the possible attitude that his fame placed him above the law, he found himself in legal trouble several times for things such as public intoxication, driving without a license, grand theft, and possession. A month before his death Renfro did an interview where he advised aspiring actors not to get involved in the party-scene and stay focused on their goals. He went on to almost predict his death by saying that many actors don’t “live through it.”

It seems that Renfro himself believed the stereotype of child stars and was warning others to beware of what is clearly a socially constructed label. As a result of this stereotype, people come to expect child stars get into trouble and those that want to exploit them probably seek them out. Being perceived and treated as reckless partiers, these stars circum to others expectations and become the products of self-fulfilling prophecies. However, another explanation as to when stereotypes turn into self-fulfilling prophecies is in the presence of low self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to achieve a preferred result (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2007). Child stars probably do not aspire to confirm the negative stereotype placed on them, but if their self-efficacy is low than they will not believe that they have the ability to overcome negative expectations. For example, in a study on adolescence alcohol use, children with high self-efficacy were not affected by their mother’s negative expectations, whereas low self-efficacy children lived up to a self-fulfilling prophecy (Willard et al., 2008). This shows that self-efficacy is most likely a moderator for the effects of self-fulfilling prophecy and may explain why not all people become a product of the Golem effect.


Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, R.M. (2007). Social Psychology (6th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson.

Brad Renfro biography. Retrieved on November 10, 2009: contributor/1800212911/bio.

Hinnant, J.B., O’Brien, M., & Ghazarian, S.R. (1996). Longitudinal relations of teacher expectations to achievement in the early school years. Journal of Education Psychology, 101(3), 662-670.

Judice, T.N., & Neuberg, S.L. (1998). When interviewers desire to confirm negative expectations: Self-fulfilling prophecies and inflated applicant self-perceptions. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 20(3), 175-190.

Levy, B.R., & Leifheit-Limson, E. (2009). Stereotype-matching effect: Greater influence on functioning when age stereotypes correspond to outcomes. Psychology and Aging, 34(1), 230-233.

Madon, S., Jussim, L., & Eccles, J. (1997). In search of the powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(4), 791-809.

Natanovich, G., & Eden, D. (2008). Pygmalion effects among outreach supervisors and tutors: Extending sex generalizability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(6), 1382-1389.

O’Connor, J. (2008). The cultural significance of the child star. New York, NY: Routledge.

Tauber, R.T. (1997). Self-fulfilling prophecy: A practical guide to its use in education. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Willard, J., Madon, S., Guyll, M., Spoth, R., & Jussim, L. (2008). Self-efficacy as a moderator of negative and positive self-fulfilling prophecy effects: Mothers’ beliefs and children’s’ alcohol use. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 499-520.

Word, C.O, Zanna, M.P., & Cooper, J. (1974). The nonverbal mediation of self-fulfilling prophecies in interracial interaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 109-120.

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