What is Self Fulfilling Prophecy

Robert K. Merton (1910 – 2003) Professor of sociology invented the word self fulfilling prophecy to help make tangible and popular the idea that some pronouncement or statement positive or negative can alter peoples action to bring about fulfillment of same pronouncement. It is, however a tragedy of human nature and experience that negative thoughts, ideas statements and actions bond more easily than positive ones. The word self fulfilling prophecy conveys an impression of a prophecy/statement that alters action and in itself is laden with the power and potentials of causing own fulfillment In actual and practical sense it is a prediction and a prediction has a probability of either coming to pass or not.

In absolute term the prophecy depends on the powers that define whether it is errant or inerrant; in other words its ability to be beyond manipulation or interference. Wagar W.W (1963) posits that “the ultimate function of a prophecy is not to tell the future but to make it”.

1 According to Wikipedia online dictionary @ en.wikipedia.org/wiki, Self Fulfilling Prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly cause itself to become true by the very terms of the prophecy, itself depending on a positive feedback between belief and behavior.2 The idea or the principle behind the self fulfilling prophecy had for long being part of human experience and implied in the thoughts and writings of early disciplined and observant minds like Bishop Bossuet in his seventeenth century defense of Catholic orthodoxy; Mandeville in his eighteenth century observations on the paradox of the human society; Karl Marx in his revision of Hegels’ theory of historical change.

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In the Literary world the principle of the concept was relayed by William Shakespeare in the tragic play “Macbeth” believed to have been written between 1603 and 1607but most commonly dated 1606. The play depicted Macbeth a Scottish Lord and general acting out a self fulfilling prophetic declaration of three witches he encountered, that one day he will become the king of Scotland.

Consumed by ambition and prodded by his wife in a sequence of events and on the basis of the prophecy he murdered the king and took over the throne. Also in the science and techno world what came to be known as the Moore’s law was from the observation by Gordon Moore co-founder of the Intel Corp in a 1965 Electronics Magazine that the number of transistors per square inch on a microprocessor chip had doubled each year since the intergrated circuit had been invented. He projected in 1968 that this doubling continue into the foreseeable future and this proved essentially correct, with subsequent data density doubling about every 18 months.3 However, Robert Merton coined the concept essentially from the background and theoretical positions of Professor W.I Thomas that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”4


The question Merton set out to address is can you convince people that something is good merely by telling them that other people like it? He believes it was indeed possible.5 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. The 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 beginning.6 .The crux of the concept then is the falsity of the perception that sets in motion a negative course of events until its fulfillment. Merton gives a sociological parable of a rumored insolvency that eventually led to the crash in 1932 of the Last National Bank headed by Cartwright Millingville. The stable financial structure of the Last National Bank had depended upon one set of definitions of the situation and belief in the validity of the interlocking system of economic promises men live by.

But once depositors had defined the situation otherwise, once they questioned the possibility of having these promises fulfilled, the consequences of this unreal definition were real enough. For Merton, therefore, so common is the pattern of the self fulfilling prophecy that it has a way it applies to individual and to everyone situation. The conclusion of an observation or perception of a situation develops into a belief that spurs corresponding behaviour whether positive or negative and actions that eventually lead to fulfillment of the prophetic declaration. A typical Nigerian situation where a man drives into his regular and favoured petrol/gas filling station and was told that the station is out of fuel or long queues observed. He perceives the situation as scarcity of fuel and spreads the news. Before long the situation is defined as such, provokes panic buying of fuel from other filling stations. This leads to unscrupulous hoarding and further panic buying of the commodity7 and an artificial scarcity is created eventually.

The prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning. A rumoured situation if not dismissed becomes a real situation.8 A lady that loves a guy and believes that by marrying him they will make a good couple. Whatever happens in the marriage owing to her belief the marriage will last. The general notion that men cheat and for some that, all men cheat can make a wife hearken to side talks of her husband having an extra-marital affair though in reality the man is innocent of the allegation. By continual nagging fuelled by rumour that the wife is acting on, the husband eventually lets loose of control and self restraint to eventually have an affair. The wife will claim her prophecy is right all the while.

Karl Popper a philosopher called the Self fulfilling prophecy the Oedipus effect. He explained through the poverty of historian in his telling of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus rex that it was due to the influence of a prediction that led to fulfillment of prophecy whereby the man killed his father and eventually married the mother and had kids by her.9 Notwithstanding the foregoing Merton addressed the boundary of the self fulfilling prophecy when he said “The self fulfilling prophecy whereby fears are translated into reality operates only in the absence of deliberate institutional controls. And it is only the rejection of social fatalism implied in the notion of unchangeable human nature that the tragic circle of fear, social disaster, and reinforced fear can be broken.10


Considering the fact that education is a central tool for economic development and in establishing one’s sense of self-worth it is essential to see how educational researches identified some factors with the self fulfilling prophecy in operation that could affect student school achievement, perception especially if it is negative, becomes strongly rooted belief and reinforces behavior with or without external influences. Areas where the self fulfilling prophecy impacts educational outcome includes: Acculturation and ethnic identity; student from disadvantaged social group; Teacher student perceptions of student; student perception of school experience; Self esteem and learning; Goal setting; Peer influence; Parental influence to mention but few.

1) Acculturation and Ethnic identity: Student moving from his state of origin to another state let say Zamfara to Lagos state has to learn to adapt to the new learning environment where stereotyping him may influence his performance-self fulfilling prophecy due to language barrier and ethnic differences that in turn affect his educational outcome depending on his belief in his self-worth may either be positive negative.

2) Students from disadvantaged social group are generally relegated by people or even teachers because of their social disadvantage and are thus treated. Where social amenities, classrooms, books, enough teachers etc abound in the city, little or nothing is found among this disadvantaged social group simply because of the belief of people i.e (teachers and government) that they do not need it or that they understand not the usage of education so they suffer from self fulfilling prophecy of people.

Perception and belief that a child does well in a private primary secondary school or private university colours the environment in which such students are often placed especially in the society which encourages their performance not necessarily because they are better than the students that attends public schools, but have been made to believe so. Therefore labeling student as better than his/her co-student only because of the different schools they went to and equally treating such student that way affording him the opportunities of developing and learning while depriving the other is creating the conditions for the self fulfilling prophecy that such students are better.

3) Teachers Educational Expectation: This is the inferences teachers make regarding students’ potential to achieve in the classroom. Some factors like students aptitude for academic achievement, a students’ family background may shape teachers perception of student. When the expectation of a teacher is high concerning a student such a student can be encouraged to work harder in order to meet up with the teacher’s expectation which knowingly or knowingly improve such student academic performance.

4) Teacher Student Perceptions of Student: A teacher that calls a student bad names like dull or failure just because of his look character and behave towards that child in like manner may affect the child educational outcome negatively, likewise a teacher that is positive towards same child even if he is not academically sound can by a way improve such child performance.

5) Student Perception of School Experience: A student who pronounces or confesses that he can never pass Mathematics because of his experience in the last performances and so perceive Mathematics as a no go area for him may never do well in mathematics academically.

6) Low Self Esteem and Learning: A comedy television series some mothers do have them depicts a moron who was taught to psyche himself up with the words I am getting better and better every day. A low self esteemed individual who does not believe in himself may find it difficult to learn or understands what the teacher teaches which in turn affect his educational outcome because he does not believe in himself and see others as better than him.

7) Goal Setting: This can be done by parent or even the student. The set goal will propel such student to always want to move on until he attained the set goal which affects the educational outcome positively or negatively if is on able to reach the set goal.

8) Communication channels and Their Specific Uses: Schram (1964- 253) pointed out that change either positive or negative will not take place unless those who are expected to change (their believe or expectation) know and accept the reasons methods and rewards for changing. Knowing full well that new skill will not be learned unless they are taught likewise, a child cannot achieve his dream/prophecy/expectation or belief except he seeks knowledge/teaching.

In conclusion parents’ teachers’ employers’ students and individual expectation do help bring to pass a self fulfilling prophecy which in turn affect educational outcome positively or negatively depending on our action and reaction (behavior) towards the prophecy.

1) Wagar W.I (1963) The city of man; prophecies of a modern civilization in 20th century thought. Boston Houghton Mufflin. 2) Self Fulfilling Prophecy en.wikipedia.org/wiki
3) Moores’ Law from www.encyclopedia.com
4) Thomas W.I (1928) The child in America Behaviors Problems & Programs. New York Alfred A Knort pp 572
5) Clive Thompson Is Taylor Swift really good or is she a “self fulfilling prophecy” www.collisiondetection.net/mt/archive
6) Robert K. Merton (1968) Social theory and social structure. New York: Free Press. pp477.
7) Marketers begin hoarding as fuel scarcity looms www.tribune.com.ng/index.php/front
8) NNPC Dismisses Rumours of Imminent fuel shortage – All Africa allafrica.com/…/201209050117.html
9) Popper Karl (1976) Unended Quest: An intellectual autobiography. LaSalle, Illinois: open Court
10) Robert K. Merton The Antioch Review pp189
11) Fasoranti Olayiwola O (2003) Understanding sociology.

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What is Self Fulfilling Prophecy. (2017, Jan 22). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/what-is-self-fulfilling-prophecy-essay

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