Can a self-fulfilling prophecy be changed?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated February 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In psychology and sociology, a self-fulfilling prophecy is generally regarded to be any belief or expectation in which holding the belief contributes to the belief becoming true. Researchers have found details that have demonstrated how our beliefs can significantly impact the outcomes of many situations, including academic achievement, career success and interpersonal fulfillment—inspiring many to work through any self-identified self-fulfilling prophecies in their personal development journeys. 

Below, we’re discussing what self-fulfilling prophecies can look like, and how to successfully identify and address any you may experience in your own life.

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Taking a look at early self-fulfilling prophecy research

The term "self-fulfilling prophecy" is thought to have been coined in 1948 by Robert Merton, an American sociologist who developed many theories still in use today. When Merton introduced the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy to the public, he did so using a story known as "The Last National Bank”.

Merton's story

Merton was noted to, in this story, describe a bank on solid financial footing. Over the course of the story, rumors begin to spread through the bank's customers that the bank is nearly insolvent. As rumors develop, the bank's customers become increasingly nervous about their deposits. (We do want to note: Many reported that Merton referenced his story in the days before modern consumer banking safeguarding. At this time in history, if the bank closes, the customers could have possibly lost what money they could not withdraw).

In the story, customers demand to completely withdraw their accounts to look after their assets from what they perceive to be an impending bank failure. However, very few banks might have enough cash on hand to allow all their customers to withdraw their total balance at once. Although Merton's bank was strong, trustworthy and solvent at the start of the day, the story concluded with a bank collapse in a day’s time as customers withdrew their funds.

Merton went on to affirm that the theory was interwoven in each area of the story. Because the customers believed the fictional bank would fail, they took actions that Merton hypothesized led directly led to its failure. Had the rumors not spread, the bank might not have failed—and day-to-day operations could have continued normally.

The rosenthal effect

Merton's ideas were regarded by many as theoretical for about 20 years after he proposed them to the public. In 1968, however, many believe that they began to take on a new form. Researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson were documented to have conducted a study on how teacher expectations impacted student classroom performance. 

Students were recorded to have split into two groups, a "high-achieving" group and a "low-achieving" group. Teachers were told that students in the high-achieving group had obtained very high scores on a test of aptitude and intelligence and that low-achieving students had scores that suggested they would not be successful in school.

In reality, the students had been documented to have taken no such test and were randomly assigned to either the high or low-achieving group. The students were not informed about their group or the fake test they had supposedly taken. The only variable in Rosenthal and Jacobson's experiment was whether the teachers had been informed. As the scientists predicted, students in the high-achieving group were reported to have had higher scores and better classroom performance than students in the low-achieving group.

The work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen was considered by many to be a landmark study that went on to inform decades of research about how expectations can shape the behavior of others. Their study revealed that teachers dedicated less effort to students labeled as low-achieving, gave them less time to answer questions and gave them less praise than high-achieving students.


How do self-fulfilling prophecies work? Exploring the two types of prophecy?

You may have noted that the self-fulfilling prophecies of Merton and Rosenthal can represent two different types of prophecy: self-imposed and other-imposed. A self-imposed self-fulfilling prophecy can occur because of certain beliefs an individual holds. In contrast, other-imposed prophecies can occur when an individual is being impacted by the beliefs of those around them.

Merton's bank story can be taken to illustrate a self-imposed self-fulfilling prophecy. Each bank customer who attempted to withdraw their money was said to have believed the bank would soon collapse. Although it took most customers holding that belief to make it true, each customer was recorded to have held the personal expectation that the bank would collapse.

On the other hand, Rosenthal and Jacobsen's study can be an example of an other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecy. The students in their experiment did not generally have beliefs or expectations about their performance that were modified by the researchers. It was the beliefs held by the teachers that were thought to have influenced the students' performance.

The general model of self-fulfilling prophecies

Self-fulfilling prophecies can be highly specific to a particular situation. However, researchers have adopted a general model that is thought to describe how most self-fulfilling prophecies might work:

  1. A person forms a belief or expectation about themselves, a group or another individual.

  2. The person then changes their behavior to match their belief.

  3. The target of the belief experiences changed behavior or an altered outcome due to the influence of the belief.

  4. The change in behavior or altered outcome reinforces the original belief.

It is important to note that the "target" of a belief can be either the person who holds the belief (self-imposed prophecy) or the entity that the belief refers to (other-imposed belief). Now, we can consider the model again, adapted to Merton's story:

  1. Customers begin to believe that the bank is about to collapse.

  2. Customers abandon typical banking behavior and demand to withdraw all their money simultaneously.

  3. The bank, unable to cope with excessive withdrawal requests, collapses.

  4. The collapse of the bank reinforces customer decisions to withdraw their money.

In Merton's story, the bank's collapse is caused entirely by customers' self-imposed beliefs. In contrast, we can then consider the model applied to Rosenthal and Jacobsen's study:

  1. Teachers believe that students in the low-achieving group will not succeed as much as those in the high-achieving group.

  2. Teachers apply less effort when teaching students in the low-achieving group.

  3. Students in the low-achieving group have worse classroom performance than the high-achieving groups.

  4. The scores of the low-achieving group reinforce the teachers' belief that those students were destined to underperform.

Can negative self-fulfilling prophecies be fixed?

Self-imposed prophecies can be easier to identify and address than other-imposed ones; as it can be challenging to understand and modify the beliefs of others or how they may be impacting you. However, with support, many can address the effects that either of the prophecy types can have on one’s experience.

It can be worthwhile to undergo this process. Negative self-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies can significantly impact your performance in school, work, social relationships, and other areas. 

One potential path to resolution is to replace negative self-fulfilling prophecies with more positive ones, which can leverage the powerful reinforcing effects of self-fulfilling prophecies to guide you toward more positive outcomes.

Not sure where to start? You can try these steps to introduce positive self-fulfilling prophecies:

  1. Establish positive beliefs – even if they don't feel natural right away. This might mean telling yourself things like, "My friends enjoy my company" or "I know I can finish that work project on time”.

  2. Try to catch negative beliefs when they appear. You can do this by training yourself to think about yourself positively and optimistically.

  3. Avoid absolutes like "never" or "always." Instead, you can allow yourself flexibility and room to grow.

  4. Work on building self-esteem to make reinforcing positive beliefs easier. A therapist can help you to do this over time. 

  5. Take note of when you confirm or exceed your positive beliefs. Many people find keeping a journal helpful as they become more positive.

Establishing positive beliefs about yourself and building self-esteem may also be helpful when managing other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies. Confidence and self-esteem can help defend you from the influence of others if they hold false or harmful beliefs about you—and it can also help you recover from undesired outcomes.

Are negative beliefs holding you back? a therapist can help

How can an online therapist help?

An online therapist can be a useful resource to leverage as you work to get control of self-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies (or as you work to manage the effects of other-imposed ones). Online therapy allows you to connect with a therapist online, which can remove many of the barriers to therapy that people may experience—like traveling to an office or being restricted to nearby therapists only.

Is online therapy effective? 

Online therapists can help clients learn how to use evidence-based techniques known to help people improve self-esteem, confidence, and one’s overall thought processes. A therapist can also help you dissect and understand the impacts of self-fulfilling prophecies in your life. 

Although therapy is conducted online, evidence suggests that it can be just as effective as in-person therapy.


Self-fulfilling prophecies can be impactful in many people's lives. Some self-fulfilling prophecies can come from within, known as self-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies. Other self-fulfilling prophecies can occur because of the beliefs of others, known as other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Self-fulfilling prophecies of either type can impact a person in school, work or social life. Improving confidence and self-esteem can help reduce negative self-imposed prophecies and help safeguard against negative other-imposed prophecies. Online therapy through BetterHelp can be a helpful place to start for many.
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