April 22, 2019

The Sociology Everyone Knows: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

This month Yale economics professor and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller posited that the next recession could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I read about it, thought about how common a term it is. You, perhaps, have used this term in your everyday lives but haven’t realized that it’s a sociological term in origin. (Unless you read this Everyday Sociology blog post from almost ten years ago!)

According to Robert K. Merton, the self-fulfilling prophecy is a “false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.” The subject of an article by Robert K. Merton, he builds on the “Thomas Theorem” (coined by W.I. and Dorothy Swaine Thomas): when a situation is defined as real, it is real in its consequences. The self-fulfilling prophecy is when a prediction is stated, no matter how incorrect, the resultant series of actions will be what he calls, brilliantly, a “reign of error.” He then states that everything that happens can be used ex post facto, as proof of the initial incorrect prediction.

Schiller’s fears about the recession is actually fairly close to the example Merton gave in his article. A noticeably large crowd of people happens to head to a bank at the same time, stoking people’s fears that the bank is in trouble. Those people head to the bank to take out their money, and fears spread. Because banks never have all of their money in a safe, instead investing that money in things like real estate, there is not enough liquid cash available to the customers. This, Merton says, leads the bank to fold.

Merton uses the idea to explain how racism works: that people have preconceived prejudices of particular racial groups, and then any evidence is used to reinforce that particular prejudice—while ignoring any counter evidence. (If you read the books the HBO TV show Game of Thrones is based upon, you might recognize this: the character Cersei is given a prophecy that her younger brother will kill her, which leads to her hating her brother Tyrion, which destroys their relationship. Cersei sees everything he does as proof of the prophecy.)

Other ways of saying this are the “Pygmalion Effect” (i.e., people rising to the expectations of others) and the “Golem Effect” (i.e., people lowering themselves to the poor expectations of others). The Pygmalion Effect is also called the Rosenthal-Jacobson Effect because of their 1968 study that showed how teacher expectations shaped student performance.

The cumulative effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy is, then, that groups get treated as being inferior, are afforded fewer opportunities, actually do not succeed as well as they could and, therefore, fulfill the prophecy. It is how what we think of as individual racism can become systemic. The term has certainly been co-opted by psychologists (a disciplinary version of the “Matilda Effect”).

However, when these sociological terms are adopted broadly they lose some of their meaning. When the self-fulfilling prophecy, for example, is used in an everyday way, it is sapped of its social/structural explanatory power, and is reduced to a mere psychological concept.

Others concepts could be discussed (e.g., one of Merton’s other great terms, co-written with his wife Harriet Zuckerman, “The Matthew Effect,” which explained the idea of “the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer). Are there other terms you can think of?

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