Definition of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The Theory and Research Behind the Common Sociological 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 occurs when a belief that is untrue influences the behavior of people in such a way that the belief becomes true in the end. This concept, of false beliefs influencing action in a way that then makes the belief true, has appeared in many cultures for centuries, but it was sociologist Robert K. Merton who coined the term and developed the concept for use within sociology.

Today, the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is commonly used by sociologists as an analytic lens through which to study factors that influence student performance in schools, those that influence deviant or criminal behavior, and how racial stereotypes influence the behavior of those to whom they are applied.

Robert K. Merton's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

In 1948, American sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the term "self-fulfilling prophecy" in an article titled for the concept. Merton framed his discussion of this concept with symbolic interaction theory, which states that people produce through interaction 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 helps explain this by highlighting that people act in situations in large part based on how they read those situations, what they believe the situations mean to them and 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 b.

(3) Because of (2), Y becomes p.

Examples of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Sociology

Many sociologists have documented the effects of self-fulfilling prophecies within 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 their 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 they 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. This is why it's especially important to understand the social force of this phenomenon.

Sociologists have documented that race, gender, and class biases frequently influence the level of expectations that teachers have for students. Teachers often expect worse performance from Black and Latino students than they do from white and Asian students, from girls than from boys (in certain subjects like science and math), and from lower-class students than from middle- and upper-class 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, ultimately making it true that these groups do not perform well in school.

Similarly, sociologists have documented how labeling kids as delinquents or criminals has the effect of producing 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 has also been documented to impact Black girls.

Each example goes to show how powerful our beliefs are as social forces, and the effect they can have, good or bad, on changing what our societies look like.