Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Links expectations of others’ behaviors with their resultant behavior

social interactions, workplace environments, education, health, experimental research with animals and humans

Contributors:  Kristen Link, MSLIS Candidate, School of Information Studies
Syracuse University, Added: April 7, 2010 


Robert K. Merton; Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson


Self-fulfilling prophecy (or, the Pygmalion effect) refers to the notion that “one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior can quite unwittingly become a more accurate prediction simply for its having been made” (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968, p. vii). For example, suppose that you are meeting Emily, a friend of your friend, Ed, for the first time. Ed has said in the past that Emily is a little shy. According to the theory, that expectation may lead you to behave toward Emily in a way that guarantees that she behaves in a more reserved manner. You may assume that she would not like to talk a lot about herself, so you don’t ask her a lot of questions. You may think that she is uncomfortable meeting new people, so you do not engage her in much conversation. Your behavior makes her behave more shyly than she might have otherwise. Your expectation (or, prophecy) about Emily is thus fulfilled as a result of that expectation. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

According to Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968), the self-fulfilling prophecy has been studied in many contexts in addition to how it might affect social situations in everyday life (as in the shyness exampled described above). For example, patients’ health outcomes may be affected by doctors’ expectations and the results from psychological research may be affected by the expectations of the experimenter about the outcome. They also reviewed many studies showing that the expectations of experimenters may affect participants’ performance on cognitive tasks. For example, Larrabee and Kelinsasser (1967; cited in Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) found that when examiners were told that the children to whom they would be administering IQ tests had above-average IQs, the children scored more than 10 points higher on the verbal subtest than when these same children were tested by examiners who were told that they had below-average IQs. Similar effects have also been demonstrated with experimenters working with animals! Rosenthal and Fode (1963; cited in Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) told some experimenters that the mice they would be testing came from strains bred to be either good (“maze-bright”) or bad (“maze-dull”) at navigating mazes, but the mice actually came from the same strain. Experimenters worked with their mice over 5 days to train them on the maze. The mice believed to be maze-bright consistently outperformed the mice thought to be maze-dull.

However, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) presented one of the first studies to provide evidence that the self-fulfilling prophecy can have an effect in the classroom, with teachers’ expectations affecting students’ achievement. Many studies have shown that there are gaps in achievement based on ethnicity and socioeconomic status, (e.g., Al-Fadhli & Singh, 2006)) and that teachers tend to have lower expectations for children in disadvantaged groups (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1994, cited in Al-Fadhli & Singh, 2006; Becker, 1952, cited in Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968;). However, it was not known whether teachers’ expectations could affect student achievement. In their study, Rosenthal and Jacobson told teachers that a randomly selected group of students in their class would experience an “intellectual bloom” in the upcoming year, based on a supposed test of “inflected acquisition.” Despite the fact that there were initially no differences between these students and their peers, when tested one year later, the “intellectual bloomers,” particularly those in the lower grades, experienced greater gains in IQ and reading grades, and were described by teachers as “more likely to succeed in the future, as more interesting, as showing greater intellectual curiosity, and as happier” (p. 108).

Although there is a long history of controversy over Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) study (e.g., Snow, 1995), reviews of large numbers of studies investigating teachers’ self-fulfilling prophecies have shown that they do occur, although the magnitude of their effects tend not to be great and may depend on a number of factors (Jussim & Harber, 2005). For example, Jussim and Harber reported that expectations are more likely to have effects on students entering new situations (e.g., when they start school or transition to middle or high school), when students perceive that teachers are engaging in differential treatment of students, and for students in stigmatized groups. This latter factor is particularly noteworthy, since these expectations are likely to be negative and could perpetuate the negative stereotypes of these groups (Rubie-Davies, Hattie, & Hamilton, 2006).

REFERENCES ~  * Coding Spreadsheet - Web View

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