Self-Fulfilling Prophecies In Social Situations
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a psychological phenomenon where someone thinks X will happen, and because of that expectation they unconsciously change their behavior to make X occur.
Having a particular belief about how something will turn out doesn't automatically mean it will come true. Our minds can't magically reshape reality. It's just that if someone has a strong expectation, and it changes their outward actions, then there's a chance that will unintentionally sway the outcome.
Self-fulfilling prophecies can appear in many contexts, such as diplomatic relationships between countries, or in how teachers treat students they've been led to believe have academic potential. This article will focus on how they can pop up in everyday social situations. I'll start by listing some common social self-fulfilling prophecies. After that I'll talk about the reactions people can have to the concept itself.
Some social self-fulfilling prophecies
Helpful self-fulfilling prophecies
You probably can't force yourself to have the beliefs that cause these prophecies overnight. However, you can try to consciously adopt the behaviors that flow out of them.
- You believe, "This person is nice and accepting" > You go out of your way to start a conversation, and act warm and friendly around them > They see you seem to like them and are friendly in response > You think "Ah, they're as nice as their reputation said they'd be"
- You think, "Everyone is interesting if you get to know them" > When you meet new people you take an interest in what they have to say and make an effort to find something intriguing about them; you don't give up if you ask two getting-to-know-you questions that don't lead anywhere > Your approach makes it more likely you'll discover the interesting aspects of people, "proving" your belief
- You tell your friends about one of your minor flaws, and have the attitude that it's normal and acceptable > Your non-verbal communication is self-assured, and you mention your flaw offhandedly, as if it's not some scandal to stop the conversation over > Your friends pick up on your mentality and treat what you revealed as if it's not a big deal
- You've only pleasantly chatted to someone a few times, but already think of them as a friend > You treat them as friend, by inviting them to your get togethers, keeping in touch with them by text, and generally seeming glad to have them around > They respond positively to your gestures, and before long you're hanging out regularly and they truly have become a friend
Self-sabotaging self-fulfilling prophecies
Again, these mostly happen on an unconscious level. People don't sit down and think, "I'm going to do these things to shoot myself in the foot!"
- You believe "That person is unfriendly" > You act cold and standoffish around them > They pick up on your attitude and are distant in response > You think, "See I knew it. Look at what a snob they are"
- "Everyone at this party is boring" > You make no effort to give people a chance or get to know them > You have a bunch of short, going-through-the-motions conversations before you head home early > As you're walking home you think, "All the guests were as dull as I thought they'd be"
- "This person is going to reject me. I know it" > You act differently around them. Maybe you're a bit touchy and argumentative, or overly-nervous, or you try too hard to be funny > They're put off by your behavior and do reject you
- You're worried you'll look nervous in front of people > You become tense, and start monitoring your body for any sign that you're starting to show anxious symptoms > You're so wound up about looking nervous that you do become nervous (If you didn't care how jittery you seemed, you may not have become that way in the first place)
- "My friends don't 'get' me" > Since you assume they don't understand you, you make no effort to let them in or share what you're about > With so little to go on they're not able to understand you
- "People always get nosey and want to pry into my business" > You act unusually secretive, closed-off, and cagey > People wonder about why you're acting that way and what you must be hiding, and do start prying (If you'd have been reasonably open no one would have gotten curious about what you were covering up)
- "My friends are going to abandon me" > You act in ways that are clingy, desperate, and controlling in an attempt to keep them from ditching you, e.g., texting them all the time asking for reassurance > Before long they're turned off by your needy behavior and start to distance themselves from you (If you'd been more relaxed and confident about the relationship from the get go, you wouldn't have done all those things)
- "My friends are going to realize I'm a loser and get sick of me" > Since you assume your impending rejection is a foregone conclusion, you start to pull away from them > Your friends slowly realize you're not around as much, figure you're busy or don't like them, and gradually stop inviting you out (If you'd never withdrawn, they wouldn't have had any reason to phase you out)
- "My friends won't accept me once they get to know the real me" > You "test" them by acting like a heightened, abrasive version of your real self > They aren't keen on the way you're acting - they didn't actually disapprove of the real you, just the exaggerated version you presented, but close enough
A kind of faux self-fulfilling prophecy is when you don't actually elicit the response you expect, but you think you have. For example, you believe someone is going to reject you and act guarded around them. They pick up on your behavior, but just figure you might be having a hard day and decide to give you some space. Since you're predisposed to see them as being rejecting, you interpret their actions as them hating and ignoring you, even though that's not what was going through their head at all. What happened here is a cognitive distortion known as Mind Reading.
You can also be influenced by someone else's self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, say you're with some co-workers and are happily hanging back and listening to everyone talk. One of your colleagues figures you must be in a bad mood since you're not saying much. They start pointing out how quiet you're being, asking what's wrong, and pestering you to speak up. You naturally feel misunderstood and get irritated. Suddenly you're in a testy mood just like they thought you were, though you'd have never been like that if it wasn't for their initial misread.
Reactions to the concept of self-sabotaging self-fulfilling prophecies
When some people with social problems hear about self-fulfilling prophecies they feel demoralized. They think, "Oh great, so it's my fault I'm lonely, because I'm not sending enough positive vibes into the universe? I do have insecurities about getting rejected, and now you're telling me they're going to screw me over and I can't do anything about it?"
Self-fulfilling prophecies aren't a death sentence for your social life. For one, not all beliefs or worries lead to them. If you're insecure about something, but you don't act any differently because of it, then it can't do much. Even if your behavior does change, it may not be in a way that's particularly influential. Like, maybe a fear of being rejected makes you a touch more nervous around people, but not to the point that anyone notices or cares.
Even if some of your expectations are creating self-sabotaging tendencies, you can deactivate them with awareness. Self-fulfilling prophecies can hinder you when you don't know you're doing them. Once you're clued in to how your beliefs may impact your outward behavior you can address each of those pieces.
First, you can examine your expectations and suss out whether any of them are faulty. That can nip a self-fulfilling prophecy in the bud. For example, if you have the thought, "My friends are going to get sick of me" you may be able to examine, challenge, and dismantle it. If you've decided someone is a snob you can ask yourself why you've jumped to that conclusion.
Secondly, you can intentionally change your behavior. It's okay if you have some insecure thoughts if they don't let them impact how you act for the worse. Say you're afraid your friends will abandon you, and for whatever reason you can't squelch that belief right away. You can still vow to keep yourself from doing anything that's over-the-top needy. You can resist an urge to send a buddy five follow up texts when they don't answer your message right away. If you suspect someone's snobby or dull, you can force yourself to be friendly and give them a chance, rather than acting closed-off or disinterested.