Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated July 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
In psychology and the social sciences, a self-fulfilling prophecy (also sometimes called the interpersonal expectancy effect) refers to a phenomenon in which an expectation about behavior manifests into reality due to an individual's beliefs and subsequent actions. These expectations can be positive or negative, and they are studied by social psychologists who posit that preconceived notions can sometimes directly impact real-world experiences and thus mental health. The term self-fulfilling prophecy was invented by sociologist Robert Merton in 1948 to describe this phenomenon.
Our thoughts and actions can create self-fulfilling prophecies

How self-fulfilling prophecies work

Self-fulfilling prophecies involve how an individual's or group’s beliefs influence their actions, which can then lead to certain results that confirm those beliefs. Although self-fulfilling prophecies can be influential, not every idea a person has comes true. However, there are occasions when conceptions and thoughts can manifest into reality through expectations.

When it comes to self-fulfilling prophecies, there may be a link between thoughts, actions, and subsequent outcomes. Your thoughts can set the foundation for much of what you do and experience in life. Often, the quality of an individual's thoughts determines how they see the world, the people they associate with, and the actions they decide to take.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is thought to work in the following way:

  • People or a group form expectations about themselves, a group, or an individual.
  • These expectations are communicated through words, gestures, or actions.
  • People change their behavior to match the message.
  • The expectation becomes a reality.
  • The reality confirms the expectation.

This cycle of reinforcing a belief is not only something a person does to themselves. A group, such as the management team of a workforce, can have an expectation about an individual or a group, which then follows this pattern of self-fulfillment. For example, business managers often use this principle in a positive way to motivate employees toward higher job performance. Research on the effects of positive self-fulfilling prophecy in the workplace has found a strong connection between bosses’ expectations and their workers’ performance on the job. This effect is sometimes called the Pygmalion effect, named after a Greek myth.

Self-fulfilling prophecies have also been extensively studied in sociology and social psychology, where they are often referred to as the Rosenthal effect. One example of this involves the expectations of a person doing scientific research influencing the outcome of their study. A possible solution to this problem is called “blinding” an investigation. An example of a blinded study is one where the researchers do not know which participants received a drug they are testing and which received a placebo.

Self-fulfilling prophecies can also occur in the classroom. An example of a self-fulfilling prophecy can happen when teachers’ expectations for students cause the students to behave in a way that confirms the original expectations, which can influence long-term student performance. For example, a teacher’s expectations for students from low-income backgrounds might be lower than their expectations for middle-class students. This lowered expectation can lead to a decrease in student performance over time, which makes the teacher’s initial false conception come true.

Relationships and self-fulfilling prophecies

Self-fulfilling prophecies can manifest in many ways, and interpersonal relationships can be affected by this phenomenon, even if the parties are not consciously aware of it. These types of self-reinforcing beliefs can happen in romantic relationships, in friendships, and with family.

Getty / courtneyk

For example, a person may think their friend is gossiping behind their back or is otherwise not as benevolent or loyal as they appear on the surface. This could lead the person to distance themselves from the person they once considered a friend. The friend in this scenario, who may or may not have been gossiping behind the other's back, may then begin to wonder why the other person is rejecting them. Over time, this could lead to resentment, and the friend may start gossiping behind the other person's back, even if they were not doing so initially.

Another example of this is how one views people in general. For example, some individuals think everyone is out to get them and harm them somehow. This expectation can lead them to elicit rejection. On the other hand, a different individual who believes there are plenty of good people in the world may be likelier to attract these types of people and relationships into their lives.

Two types of self-fulfilling prophecy

In the field of psychology, there tend to be two types of self-fulfilling prophecies: self-imposed and other-imposed. In a self-imposed prophecy, an individual’s expectations are the causal factor for their actions. In other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies, others’ expectations of an individual or group affect the actions of that individual or group. Other-imposed self-fulfilling prophecies may influence racial and gender stereotyping and discrimination. For example, suppose a person has certain expectations based on social beliefs about a particular group of people. In that case, they might treat people of that group accordingly and elicit behavior that fits the false stereotype they believe about them.

A key feature of both types of self-fulfilling prophecies is that a false belief spurs behavior that makes a person act as if the ideas were real, which can reinforce the expectation.

Changing negative self-fulfilling prophecies

Research in social science and psychology suggests that negative beliefs about oneself can lead to adverse outcomes. These outcomes can then reinforce the negative conceptions in a vicious cycle. Once in place, these core negative beliefs, ideas, or expectations about oneself, other people, or the world can give rise to various poor outcomes. For example, when a person starts to believe they are flawed, they may be more likely to place themselves in situations evoking negative consequences. In addition, this negative cycle can lead to mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. However, there are ways to improve our thinking that can lead to new, positive behaviors and outcomes.

One method may be through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT.) CBT can often help a person uncover core irrational or negative beliefs and replace them with more rational and accurate thoughts, images, and expectations. Invoking positive thinking and rational thoughts can lead to new perspectives and, eventually, a positive shift in beliefs and behaviors.

Corrective action through treatments such as CBT can encourage a person to confront problems instead of avoiding them. For example, situations evoking fear or negative thoughts can lead a person to believe that their challenges are unavoidable. In contrast, by learning to face problems, the person may be more likely to pursue positive actions in the future. The more coping strategies a person has for overcoming negative thoughts when they arise, the more equipped they may be at breaking a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Online therapy for self-fulfilling prophecies

If you’re interested in exploring CBT but feel hesitant to see a therapist in the office, you might consider online therapy, which research has found to be effective for a variety of concerns, including anxiety and depression. A study published in 2017 also found CBT to be cost-effective for patients.

Online therapy can serve as a convenient way to talk to a therapist about negative thoughts that might be leading to self-fulfilling prophecies. With BetterHelp, you can quickly connect with a licensed therapist via video chat sessions, phone calls, and text messaging, so you don’t even need to leave your home to receive support.

Our thoughts and actions can create self-fulfilling prophecies


A self-fulfilling prophecy is a phenomenon in which positive or negative expectations influence outcomes. These expectations can come from within ourselves or from other people, such as bosses, teachers, and family. CBT is one form of therapy that might help you understand how negative expectations might be undermining your progress. It might also help you discover how the expectations of others are affecting your performance in various areas of life. If you think you may be experiencing self-fulfilling prophecies, you’re not alone. Take the first step toward improving your expectations and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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