The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy


One of the leading American sociologists of the 20th century, Robert K. Merton was a theorist who believed deeply in formulating questions in a way that they could be empirically tested – theories of the middle range.  A man of uncommon erudition, he loved language and how concepts could be formulated in ways that resonated with professional scholars and a wider audience.  His contributions to the institutionalization of sociology as a discipline in the United States are many, both through his published research and through the several generations of students who represented his intellectual progeny (including myself, but notably scholars like Seymour Martin Lipset, James S. Coleman, and Peter Blau).

Merton was also responsible for concepts that have entered into our lives as ways of thinking about social situations and dynamic patterns of behavior.  He coined the phrase and was responsible for the idea behind “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.” (SFP) (1948) A self-fulfilling prophecy involves making a prediction based upon a false definition.  Once made, actions based on the false definition set in motion behavior that result in outcomes that ‘prove’ the initial prediction true.  Here is how Merton put it in his original essay:  “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true’.  The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.  For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”   Consider only one example.  If people in positions of authority or power define African-Americans as less able scholastically than other groups and therefore less likely to succeed in school, they then allocate fewer resources to their education on the basis of the “false” definition.  Allocated fewer resources, inferior teachers and school environments, the African American students do more poorly in school.  The original prophecy seems to be confirmed.

The “self-fulfilling prophecy” is conceptually linked to another important social science idea brought back to life by Merton: the idea originally dubbed the Thomas Theorem (after its author, W. I. Thomas) that holds: “If you believe things are real, they are real in their consequences.” A SFP, as Merton liked to refer to it, is related also to what Karl Popper, the distinguished philosopher of science, called “The Oedipus effect”: “One of the ideas I had discussed in The Poverty [of Historicism],” says Popper, “was the influence of a prediction upon the event predicted.  I called this the ‘Oedipus effect’, because the oracle played a most important role in the sequence of events which led to the fulfillment of its prophecy…. For a time I thought that the existence of the Oedipus effect distinguished the social from the natural sciences.  But in biology, too – even in molecular biology – expectations often play a role in bringing about what has been expected.”  The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy has not only entered our vernacular, but has been extremely influential in cognitive dissonance theory, in self-perception theory, and in studies of public policy, where, for example, predictions of the inevitability of war often sets up the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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