Positive Self-Fulling Prophecy

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”

A self-fulfilling prophecy is simply the physical outcome of a situation being influenced by our thinking, either positively or negatively. [1] Sociologist Robert Merton coined the expression and defines it as, “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” [2] As such, an individual’s expectations can come true simply because the individual is acting as if those beliefs are already true. One author describes the prophecy as a cycle with five basic steps:

  1. You form expectations of yourself, others, or events
  2. You express those expectations verbally or nonverbally
  3. Others adjust their behavior and communication to match your messages
  4. Your expectations become reality
  5. The confirmation strengthens your belief

Consider how those expectations you have about yourself and your work may manifest themselves either positively or negatively. Psychologist Dr. Patrick Keelan says this:

For example, if you believe you will do well you will likely put in more effort, rebound better from adversity, concentrate better on the task at hand and be more relaxed while you perform. On the other hand, negative expectations will likely lead you to put in less effort, give up in the face of adversity, be unable to concentrate because of preoccupation with failure, and experience anxiety and other negative mood states which are detrimental to effective performance. [3]

Understanding that we have power over our own perceptions & how that might influence outcomes offers some comfort during this difficult and uncertain time. We can take steps to overcome negative self-fulfilling prophecies and put into place positive ones. This is exceedingly important for our mental health—the cyclical nature of negative self-fulfilling prophecies can influence the development and deepening of depression. [4] Dr. Allan Schwartz gave this description of the vicious cycle:

“All of us have to clear ourselves of this ‘poor me’ way of thinking. It is not helpful and not realistic. Negative thinking is contagious because it leads to negative talk and the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you convince yourself that your life is awful, then you go about making your life awful.”

Alternatively, positive self-fulfilling prophecies can enhance your performance and confidence. Studies in sports psychology and performance psychology show that athletes and other performers with positive expectations tend to outperform those with negative expectations. [5]

Know that there are various ways in which you can use positive self-fulfilling prophecies to your advantage:

  1. Be aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy—attempt to have positive expectations (related to work, family, and life in general)
  2. Think about yourself in a positive manner & attempt to be optimistic
  3. Avoid using absolute words (never, always, cannot, etc.) & replace them with neutral or positive phrases (I’ll give it my best)
  4. Surround yourself with those who believe in you
  5. Be patient with yourself
  6. Remember: beliefs alter perceptions alter behaviors alter outcomes
  7. Work on building your self-esteem—low self-esteem may lower the expectations you set for yourself and for the day ahead
man looking through binoculars