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What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The self-fulfilling prophecy is a statement that alters actions and therefore comes true. For example, a person stating “I’m probably going to have a lousy day,” might alter his actions so that such a prediction is fulfilled by his actions. This may be an unconscious gesture. A person who might espouse a self-fulfilling prophecy in a positive way “I’m going to have a great day,” might act in ways that will actually make this prediction true.

The self-fulfilling prophecy actually predates its name. Early examples of the term are the Greek myths surrounding Oedipus. Oedipus fulfills the oracle’s prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, by striving to avoid the prophecy. This can be called a self-fulfilling prophecy because it is Oedipus’ actions that make the prophecy true.

Robert Merton, a 20th century sociologist, actually coined the term. In his definition, in the book Social Theory and Social Structure published in 1949, the prophecy or prediction is false but is made true by a person’s actions. In the modern sense the prophecy has neither false nor true value, but is merely a possibility that is made into probability by a person’s unconscious or conscious actions.

Examples of the modern self-fulfilling prophecy abound in literature. For example, the Harry Potter series finale now revolves around Lord Voldemort hearing a partial version of a prophecy that he then made true by attacking Harry. In the attack, which failed, Voldemort transferred some of his powers to Harry, making the two equal, with an equal outcome when they face each other and battle to the death.

While the modern concept echoes the past, most would agree that the normal use of the term translates to attitude about events to come. While one’s attitude cannot necessarily influence the larger things, such as a hurricane or the possibility of an earthquake, one’s attitude can influence the smaller things, like the way we relate to other people and their responses to us.

Additionally, interpretations of things like "good" and "bad" tend to be weighted by one’s expectations. The person, who is going to have a bad day for example, might miss the bus because he is grumbling about the evil portents for the day. He might seem negative or depressed at work, which might fuel nasty responses from co-workers. As the day gets worse, the person may then return home to fighting children, an unmade dinner or a fight with a spouse. All things will be interpreted in a negative light.

Conversely, the person who is going to have a good day, might miss the bus, but then get a ride from a friend, in which a useful conversation takes place. Even if a co-worker seems nasty, the person might negotiate the situation to come to a healthy resolution. If the children are fighting at home, this might be an opportunity to use one’s parenting skills, and an uncooked dinner might mean a chance to get one’s favorite pizza. The positive interpretation of the term allows one to shift interpretation of events.

Understanding positive attitudes and the self-fulfilling prophecy are now particularly helpful in dealing with long-term mental illness like anxiety disorder, or chronic pain. Cognitive behavioral studies have shown that perception and prediction of an illness’ course tends to influence experience of the illness. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on learning to alter perception to reduce chronic pain, or events like panic attacks. In this way, understanding of the concept has led to greater success in treating difficult illnesses.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon257503 — On Mar 27, 2012

The story of oedipus rex is not an example of a self fulfilling prophecy, but rather a tale of man's relationship with fate -- and his mom.

By anon209795 — On Aug 28, 2011

The law of attraction and self-fulfilling prophecy are not the same things.

If the law of attraction is outlined by the movie "The Secret," which conveyed that if someone visualizes something then it somehow materializes in your life. What a bunch of crap!

A self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency for expectations to foster "behavior" that is consistent with expectations.

By anon153414 — On Feb 17, 2011

My husband has been an alcoholic for 25+ years. Trying to figure if I contribute to it. I read that in Robert Merton's opinion that prophesy becomes self-fulfilling if there is false perception of a situation, behavior is influenced by the perception and occurrence of fulfillment of the perception.

So do my expectations of his inability to stop actually contribute to his continued drinking?

By anon123970 — On Nov 04, 2010

what made you start questioning his fidelity? and why do you continue to question his fidelity? what has he done that makes you feel he is being unfaithful? these are questions you need to ask yourself and answer.

if you are questioning his fidelity enough he is probably already cheating. there is probably something going on and there may be signs that he is and if he isn't then you have created a problem that you may never be able to repair with your husband.

By anon104227 — On Aug 15, 2010

Probably your spouse will eventually cheat, as you would have made the infidelity less incredulous and you probably express enough suspicion and distrust in him that may make him give up trying to be trustworthy.

He may may react in ways to your incessant distrust that may eventually create stress in your relationship strong enough that may push him out to seek love and understanding from others.

By anon100023 — On Jul 28, 2010

Law of attraction and this concept are self-fulfilling prophecy. Although they seem to be similar, they work differently. Please talk about how each concept develops itself - it is not just the goal.

By CoachSteve — On Apr 13, 2009

Would you say that this self-fulfilling prophecy is much like the Law of Attraction? In my teachings, I like to use both terms depending on my audience.

Coach Steve

By anon23688 — On Dec 31, 2008

"Was the harry potter analogy stating that voldemort fulfilled his prophecy by killing harry, or that harry fulfilled his about defeating voldemort, or both?"

The prophecy that Voldemort heard was that there would be a child born on a certain day whose power would equal his own (or something like that). Voldemort chose to act against that by trying to kill the child in question. However, by so doing, he actually imbued the child (Harry) with his own powers in his failed attempt to kill Harry. Had he not acted in this way, Harry would have grown up just as any other wizard.

That's not the finale, mind you, that's actually the main premise of the series, really. But I think it demonstrates the point far better without giving away massive spoilers to anyone who hasn't read the book yet. As for the ending, I don't think it qualifies nearly as much for the whole self-fulfilling prophecy thing.

By anon17185 — On Aug 24, 2008

Questioning doesn't cause infidelity, but if there is such a lack of trust that you are always accusing your partner, they will probably resent you and cheat someday because without trust how can there be love?

By Questions — On Feb 21, 2008

"...it's not the questioning that causes the infidelity..." Just as I expected---He is full of stuff.

By anon8696 — On Feb 19, 2008

Was the harry potter analogy stating that voldemort fulfilled his prophecy by killing harry, or that harry fulfilled his about defeating voldemort, or both?

By malena — On Jan 27, 2008

Interesting question, Questions. I bet some psychologists would say some amount of wonder is natural. On the other hand, to the degree that your questioning is significant it may be an indication of something larger at issue within the marriage. So perhaps it's not the questioning that causes the infidelity, but the fact that someone who is so worried suggests some instability within the relationship.

By Questions — On Oct 19, 2007

If I question my husband's fidelity enough will he eventually cheat?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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