How self-fulfilling prophecy rules the World

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If you were ensconced in the laboratory all day you may not have noticed a General Election appears imminent. Now, using that wearisome fact, let’s try a modest yet intriguing psychology experiment on you.

We know that voting is widely regarded as a civic responsibility, you’re meant to vote, yet, we also know that turnout is lamentably low and plunging ever lower, in mature democracies such as our own.

So if we asked you to predict nowwhether you were going to vote in this upcoming Election, because we have put you on the spot (and you know the expectation is that you should vote) the likelihood is, asked to predict your voting behaviour in the future, you will tend to respond to any such inquiry, that, yes, you will indeed vote. However, we also know that for many people this prediction is an overly optimistic one, given the harsh truth of past behaviour.

So let’s say we ran an experiment where we divided a sample of the electorate into two groups, and for one, we asked them to predict whether they were going to vote or not, while we did nothing pertinent to the second group; they acted as a control. Now, if we followed these two groups up into the future, to examine what they actually did in the privacy of the polling booth; the astonishing result is that being asked to predict the future… changes it!

Those who are asked to forecast whether they are going to vote, tend to confirm they will, much more so than would be expected from their past behaviour. They are responding to external expectation (and internal drivers of a similar nature) so they manage the impression they want to create of being responsible citizens, by predicting a behaviour they were in fact much less likely to perform in reality. Having foretold that they will vote, they tend to go ahead and actually vote. Yet if they weren’t asked to predict the future, they were not particularly likely to vote at all.

We can demonstrate this experimentally by comparing the group asked to predict the future with the control group, who were not asked to make predictions. This second group vote at the lower baseline rate of the general population, which is, not that much.

Why does being asked to predict that you are going to vote, make it much more likely that you will?

The short answer is that this particular psychological phenomenon, like most others, has many theories that attempt to account for it, but no one is exactly sure of why it occurs. A seminal paper on this effect in the Journal of Consumer Psychologyby Business Psychologists Eric Spangenberg of Washington State University and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington, pointed out that the phenomenon could be used to powerfully manipulate large populations into behaviours they had previously little intention of performing.
Spangenberg and Greenwald are probably the two world authorities on this intriguing ‘self-prophecy effect’ and their paper entitled ‘Social Influence by Requesting Self-Prophecy’ showed how asking people to predict their own behaviour in the future was associated on follow up with spectacularly less cheating behaviour in tests, significantly more attendance at health clubs, and more voting.

One theory is that we like to see ourselves as consistent creatures, and having made a prediction of our behaviour in the future, not to actually confirm the prediction by performing the behaviour, would force us to confront a rather unpalatable truth; we are unreliable, inconsistent people who don’t know our own minds!

We are not so aware of the hidden forces at work generated by the social expectations of being asked about our plans in front of another, which push us into making a prediction at variance with what we would really do in the privacy of our own un-observed lives.

Having made the prediction, we then work to fall into line with it.

Another, related, theory is that this is another example of the power of expectation. Psychologists have demonstrated for almost half a century now, that if teachers are manipulated into expecting their pupils to be intelligent or stupid, they then work to render these expectations self-fulfilling prophecies. Judges give directions to juries at the beginnings of trials that appear to bias the outcome in line with the judges expectation of the future. We also directly seem to suffer for this effect – if our expectation of ourselves is manipulated experimentally, we then provide later behavioural confirmation of our expectations of ourselves.

One of the most famous experiments in Social Psychology which demonstrated the power of expectation is a 1977 study by a team lead by Mark Snyder, now at the University of Minnesota, in which men were shown photographs of a woman to whom they would be talking by phone. The woman in the pictures was randomized to being either extremely physically attractive or unattractive (as rated by other independent observers) (By the way girls you may get your revenge if you come along to our experiment at the Edinburgh International Science Festival!).

What the men taking part in the experiment didn’t know, was that those sneaky psychologists had told a porky pie, and the photographs were not only randomly assigned to the men, but they also did not correspond in any way to the actual woman with whom they had the phone conversation.

While it would come as no surprise that the men behaved differently to the women during the phone conversation depending on their (manipulated) beliefs on her physical appearance, the really surprising finding was that independentratings of the women’s
segments of the conversations revealed that females whose conversational partners believed them to be less appealing, actually behaved and sounded less attractively (e.g., they were rated as sounding less warm and interesting).

The women had also been kept completely in the dark by the psychologists about the photograph manipulation. They were not aware it had taken place. This effect, therefore, had to have been mediated in some way through the men’s behavior. One possibility, is that the men who were talking to someone they believed to be unattractive, were themselves less affable than men who believed they were talking to an attractive woman. This in turn had an impact on the way the women responded, and then they way they came over to an independent observer.

A version of this powerful effect of expectation is known within academic Psychology as The Pygmalion Effect. In ancient Greek Mythology, Pygmalion (the King of Cyprus) hewed a beautiful feminine sculpture ‘out of ivory and desire’, named it Galatea and promptly fell in love with his creation. The power of his relentless desire, combined with assistance from the Goddess Venus, transformed the statue into a real living woman.

The Pygmalion Effect is a special instance of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy; where having an expectation of another, itself causes that target to modify their performance so it falls into line with the expectation of the first party.

Just in case you are starting to think that Self-Fulfilling Prophecies only inhabit the obscure world of experimental Psychology, remember we are living through a banking crisis and suffering its long term impact, and banking crises are a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because a rumour starts that a bank may fail, this precipitates a run on that bank, which in itself inevitably leads to its collapse. This is why Chancellors of the Exchequer hot foot it to the nearest TV studio to ‘steady the markets’ at the slightest hint of such runs on major financial institutions. Governments, and the whole financial system, live in perennial terror of the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s so powerful and reliable that you can literally ‘bank’ on it!

Another example would be the continuing controversy over the benefits or costs of psychiatric diagnosis. Is it possible that the expectation set up in the patient and their social circle, once a diagnosis of schizophrenia or depression is made and promulgated, in itself serves to make the implicit prophecy entailed in such a diagnosis come true? Because of the powerful self-fulfilling prophecy effect of a psychiatric diagnosis – is it possible that users of mental health services would benefit more from abandoning the use of such labels?

At the heart of the education system, psychologists contend, are ever present self-fulfilling prophecies. We constantly stream kids and students into better classes or universities, then wonder why they do better, when the power of expectation and self-fulfilling prophecy might be the answer, rather than any inherent benefit of an elite education.

Already we suspect you may want to take issue with some of the ideas we have presented. If you do, or are just curious about the power of expectation, why not take part in the psychology experiment we are running as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. It will merely mean coming along on Friday 16th May and submitting to some easy and fun psychological tests.

We promise to debrief you afterwards and reveal some preliminary results.

We don’t know whether you will take part of not, but we do predict that if you do, you will learn more about a key psychological phenomenon which you could deploy to your advantage in the future, and, we predict that you will have some fun along the way.

Professors Adrian Furnham and Raj Persaud will be running the Power of Expectation Experiment on Friday April 16th at the Filmhouse – see the Edinburgh Science Festival Website for details. Book early if you want to take part!


Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Pages 656-666. Snyder, Mark; Tanke, Elizabeth D.; Berscheid, Ellen
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1977  Volume 35, Issue 9 (Sep)

Spangenberg, E. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (1999). Social influence by requesting self-prophecy. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 8, 61-89.

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