Even if the past may have been disappointing, your future might be better than you could ever imagine.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is a statement that alters actions and therefore comes true. For example, a person stating “I can't have a decent relationship,” might alter his actions so that such a prediction is fulfilled by his actions. This may be an unconscious gesture. A person who might espouse a self-fulfilling prophecy in a positive way “I’m going to to have a great relationship,” might act in ways that will actually make this prediction true.

One such person is "Beth", who has been married four times, none of which worked out well for her. She admits to feeling like a failure herself because of the failures of her marriages. Beth also has self-esteem issues where she finds herself saying, "I don't deserve to have a decent relationship."

Beth has trouble accepting responsibility for her failure, holding onto the false belief that the external forces of others create the general thoughts, feelings, impulses and behavior that she acts upon. She often falsely believes that others in her life are having affairs, with no proof to back up her claim, and the mere mention by a person whom she is in a relationship with about her male friends causes her to believe that she is being accused of infidelity. She holds onto the false belief that insignificant remarks, events, or objects in one's environment have personal meaning or significance.

Beth's past relationships have resulted in broken hearts, ruined marriages, and damaged families. However, Beth continues to seek a relationship with someone, as she has no desire to live alone. Obviously, Beth is continuing to set herself up for failure.

Beth readily admits that she has issues, the biggest of which is jealously, but also including other important issues, such as, a fear of opening up to others, suspicions about the commitment of another, the need to deceive, all out of a fear of rejection. And, of course these actions, once realized by a partner will certainly lead to a failure in the relationship.

What Beth suffers from is little more than a behavioral confirmation effect, which is also referred to as "self-fulfilling prophecy" or the Pygmalion Effect. This occurs because she is allowing her behavior, influenced by expectations, to cause those expectations to be fulfilled. Put another way, Beth falsely believes that her relationships will fail and her fears of failure actually cause the relationship to fail. Her own negative prophecy, held together by her own delusional and strongly held beliefs, will in most instances, influence others so that their reactions ultimately fulfills the prophecy.

Example of Prophecies

There is nothing new in Beth's story. Individuals have experienced similar prophecies since ancient times. There are many stories in ancient Greece and India that tell of how 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.

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 traveled 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's real mother.

In ancient India, self-fulfilling prophecies appear in classical Sanskrit literature. In the story of Krishna in the Indian epic Mahabharata, the ruler of the Mathura kingdom, Kamsa, afraid of a prophecy that predicted his death at the hands of a male son that would be born to his sister, the princess Devaki and her husband Vasudeva. Kamsa had her cast into prison where he planned to kill any children she would bear. Devaki bore eight male children during her years of incarceration, six of whom were killed. The seventh son, Balarama, was transferred to the womb of Rohini, Vasudeva's first wife who bore the child in secret. The eighth son, Krishna, was smuggled out of the prison by Vasudeva to be raised by his foster parents Yashoda and Nanda in the village of Gokula. Years later, the ruler Kamsa 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 Kamsa was eventually killed by his nephew Krishna. It was due to Kamsa's attempts to prevent the prophecy that led to it coming true, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

As recent as the turn of the last century, sociologists suggested the "Attraction Factor", created by a focus on positive or negative thoughts, could bring about positive or negative results.According to the Attraction Factor the beliefs in mind affect someone's intentions which makes the expected result happen. There have been many cases where positive or negative attitudes produced corresponding results (principally the placebo and nocebo effects), in which individuals who were given a placebo showed signs of improvement due to their own pronounced focus on the positive. Yes, the mind is an extremely powerful tool.

Explaining Prophecies

While, the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been around for centuries the term was coined by Robert K. Merton, who formalized its structures an consequence in his book, Social Theory and Social Structure, first published in 1949, but revised in 1957 and 1968. The book has been translated into 20 languages and is one of the most frequently cited texts in social sciences. In 1998 the International Sociological Association listed this work as the third most important sociological book of the 20th century.

Explaining the causes of self-fulfilling prophecies is challenging, but several theories have been developed by psychiatrists. One is the genetic or biological theory, which states that those with close relatives that suffer from self-fulfilling prophecies are at an increased risk of the trait. Another theory is related to poor cognitive processing (thinking), which states that problems often arise in people that hold onto a distorted manner of explaining life to themselves. A third theory is called motivated of defensive method, in which some are predisposed to suffer when coping with life and attempting to handle self-esteem becomes challenging. In this instance, the person views others as the cause of their personal difficulties in order to preserve their own positive self-view.

Self Fulfilling Prophecies

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The problem of self-fulfilling prophecies is that they can be construed as a vicious circle as seen in the Self Fulfilling Prophecy illustration above.

  • Our beliefs about us influence our actions toward others.
  • Our actions toward others impact others beliefs about us.
  • What others believe about us cause others actions toward us.
  • Others actions towards us reinforce our beliefs about us.

And, on it goes in a perpetual state, until a change is made. Obviously, we will have little control over what others believe about us or the actions that they take until they see the change in us. However, it only requires that we alter our believes about ourselves and our actions toward others to create a huge difference in what others believe and the actions they take toward us.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it is already true. Our expectation that we will see a particular outcome changes our behavior, which shapes the way others see us. In turn, others provide the feedback we’ve set ourselves up to get, which serves to reinforce the original belief.

As an example, Beth wants someone that will trust her implicitly and she wants to trust others, but that has not always been the case in her past. She worries that the other person in her life is not being totally honest with her. Trust is a product of intimacy, a closeness, connectedness and a bonding between two people. The intimacy between two people grows first by spending time with another person. Then it grows deeper when the two people find that they can trust each other and begin sharing every aspect of their lives. Trust is the very foundation of intimacy.

In Beth's case, it is her own ability to open up with others that causes her problem of trust. By creating a change in her own believes that she is always honest and can be trusted it will influence her actions toward others. Once she believes that she is an honest person, she will be able to treat others with trust. That in turn will impact how others think of her, causing them to treat Beth with trust, which only serves to reinforce the change she made. It is basically the old "carrot on a stick" as their will be in most cases positive reinforcement of the changes she made.

This may be slow in coming if the other person has the same tendencies as Beth has, but the cycle has to be broken by someone in order to have the relationship move forward. Once the other person finds the change pleasing Beth's actions will be mirrored to the other person, who will see that they too much create their own changes. Thus the cycle is broken and broken and the relationship has a chance of success.

What are some ways you see self-fulfilling prophecies operating in your life? Where are they holding you back?

Using Self-Fulfilling Prophecies to Your Advantage

While, a proper solution to any problem is difficult to define in individual circumstances, there are ways in which the process of finding a solution can begin. One such method is The Inquiry Wheel, which I use in my consulting practice. We begin with a question and work to resolve an answer in a defined manner.

Inquiry Wheel

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Observation - In order to solve any problem, you first have to accept that there is a problem and accept responsibility for solving the problem.

Define Problem - What is the problem specifically? Write it down and expound greatly upon on it. The better you define the problem in depth be more chance for success.

Form Question -  What is known about the problem? What do you need to know?

Investigate Known - What is known and what do you need to know? What are you feelings and how are they likely to change during the process?

Articulate Expectation - What are your expectations of a proper solution?

Study - What kinds of resources are there that might help? Where do you find them? Is the information valid?

Interpret Results - After taking action, what results were seen?

Reflect on Findings - Think about what you have learned and how it might be used to find solutions for other problems.

Communicate Findings - Social interaction gives positive feedback for positive solutions. It also helps to tell others what you are working on or how you solved a problem. Once you have committed your attempts or success to others you will be better able to continue moving forward in your quest.

Observation - Yes, we are back to observation, but this time our actions are altered. We must keep a constant watch over our change to be sure that we do not falter.

I wish you the success that you are working toward. I know it is hard work, but it will pay off in the end.