Definition of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Sociology

The Theory and Research Behind the Common Term

A boy sitting in the corner of a classroom wearing a dunce cap symbolizes the effect that a self-fulfilling prophecy can have on student achievement.
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A self-fulfilling prophecy is a sociological term used to describe what happens when a false belief influences people's behavior in such a way that it ultimately shapes reality. This concept has appeared in many cultures for centuries, but American sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the term and developed it for use in sociology.

Today, the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is commonly used by sociologists as an analytic lens through which to study student performance, deviant or criminal behavior, and the impact of racial stereotypes on targeted groups.

Robert K. Merton's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

In 1948, Merton used the term "self-fulfilling prophecy" in an article. He framed his discussion of this concept with symbolic interaction theory, which states that, through interaction, people bring about a shared definition of the situation in which they find themselves. He argued that self-fulfilling prophecies begin as false definitions of situations, but that behavior based on the ideas attached to this false understanding recreates the situation in such a way that the original false definition becomes true.

Merton's description of the self-fulfilling prophecy is rooted in the Thomas theorem, formulated by sociologists W. I. Thomas and D. S. Thomas. This theorem states that if people define situations as real, they are then real in their consequences. Both Merton's definition of self-fulfilling prophecy and the Thomas theorem reflect the fact that beliefs act as social forces. They have, even when false, the power to shape our behavior in very real ways.

Symbolic interaction theory explains this by highlighting that people act in situations largely based on how they read those situations, and what they believe the situations mean to them or to the others participating in them. What we believe to be true about a situation then shapes our behavior and how we interact with the others present.

In "The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology," sociologist Michael Briggs provides an easy three-step way to understand how self-fulfilling prophecies become true.

  1. X believes that y is p.
  2. X, therefore, does p.
  3. Because of 2, y becomes p.

Examples of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Sociology

A number of sociologists have documented the effects of self-fulfilling prophecies in education. This occurs primarily as a result of teacher expectation. The two classic examples are of high and low expectations. When a teacher has high expectations for a student and communicates those expectations to the student through his behavior and words, the student then typically does better in school than they would otherwise. Conversely, when a teacher has low expectations for a student and communicates this to the student, the student will perform more poorly in school than she otherwise would.

Taking Merton's view, one can see that, in either case, the teacher's expectations for the students are creating a certain definition of the situation that rings true for both the student and the teacher. That definition of the situation then impacts the student's behavior, making the teacher's expectations real in the behavior of the student. In some cases, a self-fulfilling prophecy is positive, but, in many, the effect is negative.

Sociologists have documented that race, gender, and class biases frequently influence the level of expectations that teachers have for students. Teachers often expect black and Latino students to perform worse than white and Asian students. They may also expect girls to perform worse than boys in certain subjects like science and math, and low-income students to perform worse than middle- and upper-income students. In this way, race, class, and gender biases, which are rooted in stereotypes, can act as self-fulfilling prophecies and actually create poor performance among the groups targeted with low expectations. This ultimately results in these groups performing poorly in school.

Similarly, sociologists have documented how labeling kids delinquents or criminals leads to delinquent and criminal behavior. This particular self-fulfilling prophecy has become so common across the U.S. that sociologists have given it a name: the school-to-prison pipeline. It is a phenomenon that is also rooted in racial stereotypes, primarily ones of black and Latino boys, but documentation suggests that it affects black girls as well.

Examples of self-fulfilling prophecies show how powerful our beliefs are. Good or bad, these expectations can alter what societies look like.