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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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An initial expectation that is confirmed by the behavior it elicits.

One's beliefs about other people determine how one acts towards them, and thus play a role in determining the behavior that results. Experiments have demonstrated this process in a variety of settings. In one of the best-known examples, teachers were told (falsely) that certain students in their class were "bloomers" on the verge of dramatic intellectual development. When the students were tested eight months later, the "special" students outperformed their peers, fulfilling the prediction that had been made about them. During the intervening period, the teachers had apparently behaved in ways that facilitated the students' intellectual development, perhaps by giving them increased attention and support and setting higher goals for them.

In another experiment, a group of men became acquainted with a group of women by telephone after seeing what they thought were pictures of their "partners." The supposedly attractive women were considered more interesting and intelligent. Researchers concluded that the men's own behavior had been more engaging toward those women whom they thought were attractive, drawing livelier responses than the men who thought their partners were unattractive.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies if members of disadvantaged groups are discouraged from setting ambitious goals because of other people's low expectations. The term self-fulfilling prophecy can also refer to the effect that people's beliefs about themselves have on their own behavior. Those who expect to succeed at a task, for example, tend to be more successful than those who believe they will fail.

Further Reading

Halloran, James D. Attitude Formation and Change. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Harvey, Terri L., Ann L. Orbuch, and John H. Weber, eds. Attributions, Accounts, and Close Relationships. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992.

Weary, Gifford. Attribution. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Wyer, R. S., and T. K. Srull, eds. Handbook of Social Cognition. 2d ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

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