A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly
causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy
itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. Although
examples of such prophecies can be found in literature as far back as
ancient Greece and ancient India, it is 20th-century sociologist
Robert K. Merton
Robert K. Merton who is credited with coining the expression
"self-fulfilling prophecy" and formalizing its structure and
consequences. In his 1948 article Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Merton
defines it in the following terms:
The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition
of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false
conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling
prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the
actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very
In other words, a positive or negative prophecy, strongly held belief,
or delusion—declared as truth when it is actually false—may
sufficiently influence people so that their reactions ultimately
fulfill the once-false prophecy.
Self-fulfilling prophecy are effects in behavioral confirmation
effect, in which behavior, influenced by expectations, causes those
expectations to come true. It is complementary to the
1 History of the concept
4 Literature, media, and the arts
4.1.6 European fairy tales
4.2.1 New Thought
5 Causal loop
6 See also
8 Further reading
History of the concept
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Merton's concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy stems from the Thomas
theorem, which states that "If men define situations as real, they are
real in their consequences". According to Thomas, people react not
only to the situations they are in, but also, and often primarily, to
the way they perceive the situations and to the meaning they assign to
their perceptions. Therefore, their behaviour is
determined in part by their perception and the meaning they ascribe to
the situations they are in, rather than by the situations themselves.
Once people convince themselves that a situation really has a certain
meaning, regardless of whether it actually does, they will take very
real actions in consequence.
Merton took the concept a step further and applied it to recent social
phenomena. In his book Social Theory and Social Structure, he
conceives of a bank run at the fictional Last National Bank, over
which Cartwright Millingville presides. It is a typical bank, and
Millingville has run it honestly and quite properly. As a result, like
all banks, it has some liquid assets (cash), but most of its assets
are invested in various ventures. Then one day, a large number of
customers comes to the bank at once—the exact reason is never made
clear. Customers, seeing so many others at the bank, begin to worry.
False rumours spread that something is wrong with the bank and more
customers rush to the bank to try to get some of their money out while
they still can. The number of customers at the bank increases, as does
their annoyance and excitement, which in turn fuels the false rumours
of the bank's insolvency and upcoming bankruptcy, causing more
customers to come and try to withdraw their money. At the beginning of
the day—the last one for Millingville's bank—the bank was not
insolvent. But the rumour of insolvency caused a sudden demand of
withdrawal of too many customers, which could not be answered, causing
the bank to become insolvent and declare bankruptcy. Merton concludes
this example with the following analysis:
The parable tells us that public definitions of a situation
(prophecies or predictions) become an integral part of the situation
and thus affect subsequent developments. This is peculiar to human
affairs. It is not found in the world of nature, untouched by human
hands. Predictions of the return of Halley's comet do not influence
its orbit. But the rumoured insolvency of Millingville's bank did
affect the actual outcome. The prophecy of collapse led to its own
Merton concluded that the only way to break the cycle of
self-fulfilling prophecy is by redefining the propositions on which
its false assumptions are originally based.
In economic "expectations models" of inflation, peoples' expectations
of future inflation lead them to spend more today and demand higher
nominal interest rates for any savings, since they expect that prices
will be rising. This demand for higher nominal interest rates and
increased spending in the present, in turn, create inflationary
pressure and can cause inflation even if the expectations of future
inflation are unfounded. The expectations theory of
inflation played a large role in Paul Volcker's actions during his
tenure as the Chairman of the
Federal Reserve in combating the
"stagflation" of the 1970s.
Karl Popper called the self-fulfilling prophecy the
One of the ideas I had discussed in
The Poverty of Historicism was the
influence of a prediction upon the event predicted. I had called this
Oedipus effect", because the oracle played a most important role
in the sequence of events which led to the fulfilment of its prophecy.
… For a time I thought that the existence of the
distinguished the social from the natural sciences. But in biology,
too—even in molecular biology—expectations often play a role in
bringing about what has been expected.
An early precursor of the concept appears in Edward Gibbon's Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire: "During many ages, the prediction, as it
is usual, contributed to its own accomplishment" (chapter I, part II).
Examples abound[example needed] in studies of cognitive dissonance
theory and the related self-perception theory; people will often
change their attitudes to come into line with what they profess
In the United States the concept was broadly and consistently applied
in the field of public education reform, following the "War on
Poverty". Theodore Brameld noted: "In simplest terms, education
already projects and thereby reinforces whatever habits of personal
and cultural life are considered to be acceptable and dominant."
The effects of teacher attitudes, beliefs and values, affecting their
expectations have been tested repeatedly.
The phenomenon of the "inevitability of war" is a self-fulfilling
prophecy that has received considerable study.
The idea is similar to that discussed by the philosopher William James
as The Will to Believe. But James viewed it positively, as the
self-validation of a belief. Just as, in Merton's
example, the belief that a bank is insolvent may help create the fact,
so too on the positive side, confidence in the bank's prospects may
help brighten them. Similarly, Stock-exchange panic
episodes and speculative bubble episodes can be triggered with the
belief that the stock will go down (or up), thus starting the
selling/buying mass move, etc.
A more Jamesian example: a swain, convinced that the fair maiden must
love him, may prove more effective in his wooing than he would had his
initial prophecy been defeatist.
There is extensive evidence[where?] of "Interpersonal Expectation
Effects" where the seemingly private expectations of individuals can
predict the outcome of the world around them. The mechanisms by which
this occurs are also reasonably well understood: it is simply that our
own expectations change our behaviour in ways we may not notice and
correct. In the case of the "Interpersonal Expectation Effects",
others pick up on non-verbal behaviour which affects their attitudes.
A famous[according to whom?] example includes a study where teachers
were told arbitrarily that random students were "going to
blossom".[not in citation given] Oddly, those random students actually
ended the year with significantly greater improvements.
Other specific examples discussed in psychology include:
'Clever Hans' effect
In Canadian ice hockey, junior league players are selected based on
skill, motor coordination, physical maturity, and other individual
merit criteria. However, psychologist Robert Barnsley showed that in
any elite group of hockey players, 40% are born between January and
March, versus the approximately 25% as would be predicted by
statistics. The explanation is that in Canada, the eligibility cutoff
for age-class hockey is January 1, and the players who are born in the
first months of the year are older by 0–11 months, which at the
preadolescent age of selection (nine or ten) manifests into an
important physical advantage. The selected players are exposed to
higher levels of coaching, play more games, and have better teammates.
These factors make them actually become the best players, fulfilling
the prophecy, while the real selection criterion was age. The same
relative age effect has been noticed in Belgian soccer after 1997,
when the start of the selection year was changed from August 1 to
Main article: Stereotype threat
This specific form of self-fulfilling prophecy is very common and
takes many forms. For example, the expectancy for a political party to
act in a certain way—based on race, religion, gender and much
more—can eventually lead the said party to imitate the
Literature, media, and the arts
In literature, self-fulfilling prophecies are often used as plot
devices. They have been used in stories for millennia, but have gained
a lot of popularity recently in the science fiction genre. They are
typically used ironically, with the prophesied events coming to pass
due to the actions of one trying to prevent the prophecy (a recent
example would be the life of Anakin Skywalker, the fictional
Jedi-turned-Sith Lord in George Lucas' Star Wars saga). They are also
sometimes used as comic relief.
Many myths, legends and fairy tales make use of this motif as a
central element of narratives that are designed to illustrate
inexorable fate, fundamental to the Hellenic world-view. In a
common motif, a child, whether newborn or not yet conceived, is
prophesied to cause something that those in power do not want to
happen. This may be the death of the powerful person; in more
light-hearted versions, it is often the marriage of a poor or
lower-class child to his own. The events come about, nevertheless, as
a result of the actions taken to prevent them: frequently child
abandonment sets the chain of events in motion.
Oedipus in the arms of Phorbas.
The best known example from Greek legend is that of Oedipus. Warned
that his child would one day kill him,
Laius abandoned his newborn son
Oedipus to die, but
Oedipus was found and raised by others, and thus
in ignorance of his true origins. When he grew up,
Oedipus was warned
that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing his
foster parents were his real parents, he left his home and travelled
to Greece, eventually reaching the city where his biological parents
lived. There, he got into a fight with a stranger, his real father,
killed him and married his widow, Oedipus' real mother.
Although the legend of
Perseus opens with the prophecy that he will
kill his grandfather Acrisius, and his abandonment with his mother
Danaë, the prophecy is only self-fulfilling in some variants. In
some, he accidentally spears his grandfather at a competition—an act
that could have happened regardless of Acrisius' response to the
prophecy. In other variants, his presence at the games is explained by
his hearing of the prophecy, so that his attempt to evade it does
cause the prophecy to be fulfilled. In still others,
Acrisius is one
of the wedding guests when
Polydectes tried to force
Danaë to marry
him, and when
Perseus turns them to stone with the Gorgon's head; as
Polydectes fell in love with
Acrisius abandoned her at
Perseus killed the Gorgon as a consequence of Polydectes'
attempt to get rid of Danaë's son so that he could marry her, the
prophecy fulfilled itself in these variants.
Greek historiography provides a famous variant: when the Lydian king
Croesus asked the
Delphic Oracle if he should invade Persia, the
response came that if he did, he would destroy a great kingdom.
Assuming this meant he would succeed, he attacked—but the kingdom he
destroyed was his own. In such an example, the prophecy prompts
someone to action because he is led to expect a favorable result; but
he achieves another, disastrous result which nonetheless fulfills the
People do not necessarily have to unsuccessfully avoid a prophecy in
order for the prophecy to be self-fulfilling. For example, when it was
Zeus would overthrow his father, Cronos, and usurp his
throne as King of the Gods, he actively waged war against him in a
direct attempt to fulfill this prophecy. This makes the prophecy a
self-fulfilling one because it was the prophecy itself that gave Zeus
the inspiration to do it in the first place.
Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus feeding from a wolf.
The story of
Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus is another example. According to
legend, a man overthrew his brother, the king. He then ordered that
his two nephews, Romulus and Remus, be drowned, fearing that they
would someday kill him like he did to his brother. The boys were
placed in a basket and thrown in the Tiber River. A wolf found the
babies and she raised them. Later, a shepherd found the twins and
named them Romulus and Remus. As teenagers, they found out who they
were. They killed their uncle, fulfilling the prophecy.
A variation of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the self-fulfilling
dream, which dates back to medieval Arabic literature. Several tales
in the One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights,
use this device to foreshadow what is going to happen, as a special
form of literary prolepsis. A notable example is "The Ruined Man Who
Became Rich Again Through a Dream", in which a man is told in his
dream to leave his native city of
Baghdad and travel to Cairo, where
he will discover the whereabouts of some hidden treasure. The man
travels there and experiences misfortune after losing belief in the
prophecy, ending up in jail, where he tells his dream to a police
officer. The officer mocks the idea of foreboding dreams and tells the
protagonist that he himself had a dream about a house with a courtyard
and fountain in
Baghdad where treasure is buried under the fountain.
The man recognizes the place as his own house and, after he is
released from jail, he returns home and digs up the treasure. In other
words, the foreboding dream not only predicted the future, but the
dream was the cause of its prediction coming true. A variant of this
story later appears in
English folklore as the "Pedlar of
Another variation of the self-fulfilling prophecy can be seen in "The
Tale of Attaf", where
Harun al-Rashid consults his library (the House
of Wisdom), reads a random book, "falls to laughing and weeping and
dismisses the faithful vizier"
Ja'far ibn Yahya from sight. Ja'far,
"disturbed and upset flees
Baghdad and plunges into a series of
adventures in Damascus, involving Attaf and the woman whom Attaf
eventually marries." After returning to Baghdad, Ja'far reads the same
book that caused Harun to laugh and weep, and discovers that it
describes his own adventures with Attaf. In other words, it was
Harun's reading of the book that provoked the adventures described in
the book to take place. This is an early example of reverse
causality. In the 12th century, this tale was translated into
Petrus Alphonsi and included in his Disciplina Clericalis. In
the 14th century, a version of this tale also appears in the Gesta
Romanorum and Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.
Krishna playing his flute with Radha.
Self-fulfilling prophecies appear in classical Sanskrit literature. In
the story of
Krishna in the Indian epic Mahabharata, the ruler of the
Mathura kingdom, Kansa, afraid of a prophecy that predicted his death
at the hands of his sister Devaki's son, had her cast into prison
where he planned to kill all of her children at birth. After killing
the first six children, and Devaki's apparent miscarriage of the
Krishna (the eighth son) was born. As his life was in danger
he was smuggled out to be raised by his foster parents
Nanda in the village of Gokula. Years later, Kansa learned about the
child's escape and kept sending various demons to put an end to him.
The demons were defeated at the hands of
Krishna and his brother
Balarama. Krishna, as a young man returned to Mathura to overthrow his
uncle, and Kansa was eventually killed by his nephew Krishna. It was
due to Kansa's attempts to prevent the prophecy that led to it coming
true, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
Oleg of Novgorod
Oleg of Novgorod was a
Varangian prince who ruled over the Rus people
during the early tenth century. As old East Slavic chronicles say, it
was prophesied by the pagan priests that Oleg's stallion would be the
source of Oleg's death. To avoid this he sent the horse away. Many
years later he asked where his horse was, and was told it had died. He
asked to see the remains and was taken to the place where the bones
lay. When he touched the horse's skull with his boot a snake slithered
from the skull and bit him. Oleg died, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
In the Primary Chronicle, Oleg is known as the Prophet, ironically
referring to the circumstances of his death. The story was
Alexander Pushkin in his celebrated ballad "The Song
of the Wise Oleg". In Scandinavian traditions, this legend lived on in
the saga of Orvar-Odd.
European fairy tales
Many fairy tales, such as The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs, The
Fish and the Ring, The Story of Three Wonderful Beggars, or The King
Who Would Be Stronger Than Fate, revolve about a prophecy that a poor
boy will marry a rich girl (or, less frequently, a poor girl a rich
boy). This is story type 930 in the Aarne–Thompson
classification scheme. The girl's father's efforts to prevent it are
the reason why the boy ends up marrying her.
Another fairy tale occurs with older children. In The Language of the
Birds, a father forces his son to tell him what the birds say: that
the father would be the son's servant. In The Ram, the father forces
his daughter to tell him her dream: that her father would hold an ewer
for her to wash her hands in. In all such tales, the father takes the
child's response as evidence of ill-will and drives the child off;
this allows the child to change so that the father will not recognize
his own offspring later and so offer to act as the child's servant.
In some variants of Sleeping Beauty, such as Sun, Moon, and Talia, the
sleep is not brought about by a curse, but a prophecy that she will be
endangered by flax (or hemp) results in the royal order to remove all
the flax or hemp from the castle, resulting in her ignorance of the
danger and her curiosity.
Macbeth is another classic example of a self-fulfilling
prophecy. The three witches give
Macbeth a prophecy that
eventually become king, but afterwards, the offspring of his best
friend will rule instead of his own.
Macbeth tries to make the first
half true while trying to keep his bloodline on the throne instead of
his friend's. Spurred by the prophecy, he kills the king and his
friend, something he, arguably, never would have done before. In the
end, the evil actions he committed to avoid his succession by
another's bloodline get him killed in a revolution.
The later prophecy by the first apparition of the witches that Macbeth
should "Beware Macduff" is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Macbeth
had not been told this, then he might not have regarded Macduff as a
threat. Therefore, he would not have killed Macduff's family, and
Macduff would not have sought revenge and killed Macbeth.
Oedipus above, a more modern example would be Darth Vader
in the Star Wars films, or
Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter
franchise and the Big Three in Percy Jackson & the Olympians -
each attempted to take steps to prevent action against them which had
been predicted could cause their downfall, but instead created the
conditions leading to it. Another, less well-known, modern example
occurred with the character John Mitchell on BBC Three's Being Human.
The Disney television series
That's So Raven
That's So Raven stars
the title character with the ability to see into the future with a
strange situation. The extreme steps that the character takes to
prevent the situation are almost always what lead to it.
The law of attraction is a typical example of self-fulfilling
prophecy. It is the name given to the belief that "like attracts like"
and that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, one can bring
about positive or negative results. According to this law, all
things are created first by imagination, which leads to thoughts, then
to words and actions. The thoughts, words and actions held in mind
affect someone's intentions which makes the expected result happen.
Although there are some cases where positive or negative attitudes can
produce corresponding results (principally the placebo and nocebo
effects), there is no scientific basis to the law of attraction.
Causal loop and Newcomb's paradox
A self-fulfilling prophecy may be a form of causality loop, only when
the prophecy can be said to be truly known to occur, since only then
events in the future will be causing effects in the past. Otherwise,
it would be a simple case of events in the past causing events in the
Predestination does not necessarily involve a supernatural
power, and could be the result of other "infallible foreknowledge"
mechanisms. Problems arising from infallibility and influencing
the future are explored in Newcomb's paradox. A notable fictional
example of a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs in classical play Oedipus
Rex, in which
Oedipus becomes the king of Thebes, whilst in the
process unwittingly fulfills a prophecy that he would kill his father
and marry his mother. The prophecy itself serves as the impetus for
his actions, and thus it is self-fulfilling. The movie 12 Monkeys
heavily deals with themes of predestination and the Cassandra complex,
where the protagonist who travels back in time explains that he cannot
change the past.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Fake it till you make it
Reflexivity (social theory)
Self-licking ice cream cone
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Dorothy L. Sayers, "
Oedipus Simplex: Freedom and Fate in
Chronology protection conjecture
Closed timelike curve
Novikov self-consistency principle
Quantum mechanics of time travel
Time travel in fiction
Timelines in fiction
in science fiction
television series that include time travel
Causal loop (predestination paradox)
Parallel universe (fiction)
space and time
Spacetimes in general
relativity that can contain
closed timelike curves
BTZ black hole
van Stockum dust
Time travel claims
and urban legends
Deus ex machina
In medias res
Figure of speech
Suspension of disbelief
Types of fiction with multiple endings
List of writing genres
Stream of consciousness
Stream of unconsciousness