Self-Fulfilling Prophecies Research Paper

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A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when an originally false social belief leads to its own fulfillment. The self-fulfilling prophecy was first described by Merton (1948), who applied it to test anxiety, bank failures, and discrimination. This research paper reviews some of the controversies surrounding early self-fulfilling prophecy research, and traces how those controversies have led to modern research on relations between social beliefs and social reality.

Self-fulfilling prophecies did not receive much attention until Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) Pygmalion study. Teachers were led to believe that randomly selected students would show dramatic increases in IQ over the school year. Results seemed to show that, especially in the earlier grade levels, those students gained more in IQ than other students. Thus, the teachers’ initially false belief that some students would show unusual IQ gains became true.

1. Controversy, Replication, And Meta-Analysis

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study (1968) was highly controversial. Although it seemed to explain the low achievement of disadvantaged students, it was criticized on methodological and statistical grounds. This controversy inspired attempts at replication. Only about one third of these early attempts succeeded (Rosenthal and Rubin 1978). Critics concluded that the phenomenon was unreliable. Proponents concluded that this demonstrated the existence of self-fulfilling prophecies because, if chance differences were occurring, replications would only succeed 5 percent of the time.

This controversy inspired Rosenthal’s work on meta-analysis—statistical techniques for summarizing the results of multiple studies. Rosenthal and Rubin’s (1978) meta-analysis of the first 345 studies of interpersonal expectancy effects conclusively demonstrated that self-fulfilling prophecies are a real and reliable phenomenon. That meta-analysis also showed that they were neither pervasive (nearly two-thirds of the studies failed to find the effect) nor powerful (effect sizes, in terms of correlation or regression coefficients, averaged 0.2–0.3).

This, however, did not end the controversy. Although few modern researchers dispute the existence of self-fulfilling prophecies in general, several do dispute the claims that teacher expectations influence student intelligence (Snow 1995). For example, Snow (1995) concluded that: (a) the expectancy effect disappears if one removes five students with implausible IQ increases (100 points within one year) from the Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) study, and (b) the literature fails to demonstrate an effect of teacher expectations on IQ.

2. Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes

Some researchers saw in self-fulfilling prophecies an explanation for social inequalities. Thus, in the 1970s, research began addressing the self-fulfilling effects of stereotypes. The main ideas were that; if most stereotypes were inaccurate and if self-fulfilling prophecies were common and powerful (as was believed) then negative stereotypes regarding intelligence, achievement, motivation, etc., may produce self-fulfilling prophecies that lead individuals from devalued groups to objectively confirm those stereotypes.

The early experimental research seemed to support this perspective:

(a) White interviewers’ racial stereotypes could undermine the performance of Black interviewees.

(b) Males acted more warmly towards, and evoked warmer behavior from, female interaction partners erroneously believed to be more physically attractive.

(c) When interacting with a sexist male who was either physically attractive or who was interviewing them for a job, women altered their behavior to appear more consistent with traditional sex stereotypes.

(d) Teachers used social class as a major basis for expectations and treated students from middle class backgrounds more favorably than students from lower class backgrounds (see reviews by Jussim et al. 1996 and Snyder 1984).

3. Widespread Acceptance And More Questions

The role of self-fulfilling prophecies, however, in creating social problems remained unclear because many of the early self-fulfilling prophecy experiments suffered important limitations. In most, if the expectancy manipulation was successful, perceivers developed erroneous expectations. However, under naturalistic conditions perceivers may develop accurate expectations, which, by definition, do not create self-fulfilling prophecies (because self-fulfilling prophecies begin with an initially false belief ). Three categories of research have addressed the limitations of the early experiments in different ways.

3.1 Naturalistic Studies Of Teacher Expectations

Longitudinal, quantitative investigations of naturally occurring teacher expectancies addressed the accuracy problem directly. All assessed relations between teacher expectations and students’ past and future achievement. If teacher expectations predicted future achievement beyond effects accounted for by students’ past achievement, results were interpreted as providing evidence consistent with self-fulfilling prophecies. These studies also provided data capable of addressing two related questions:

(a) How large are naturally occurring teacher expectation effects?

(b) Do teacher expectations predict students’ achievement more because they create self-fulfilling prophecies or more because they are accurate?

The results were consistent:

(a) In terms of standardized regression coefficients, the self-fulfilling effects of teacher expectations were about 0.1–0.2.

(b) Teacher expectations were strongly based on students’ past achievement.

(c) Teachers’ expectations predicted students’ achievement more because they were accurate than because they led to self-fulfilling prophecies.

(d) Even teachers’ perceptions of differences be- tween students from different demographic groups (i.e., stereotypes) were mostly accurate (Jussim et al. 1996).

3.2 Naturalistic Studies Of Close Relationships

Recent research has begun investigating the occurrence of self-fulfilling prophecies in close relationships. Children come to view their math abilities in a manner consistent with their mothers’ sex stereotypes (Jacobs and Eccles 1992). New college roommates change each others’ self-perceptions of academic and athletic ability (McNulty and Swann 1994). People who feel anxious that their romantic partners will reject them often evoke rejection from those partners (Downey et al. 1998). Furthermore, the more positive the illusions one holds regarding one’s romantic partner the longer that relationship is likely to continue and the more positively one’s romantic partner will come to view him or herself (Murray et al. 1996). As with the teacher expectation studies, however, self-fulfilling prophecy effect sizes average about 0.2.

3.3 Nonconscious Priming Of Stereotypes

Chen and Bargh (1997) avoided inducing false expectations by nonconsciously priming a stereotype, and observing its effect on social interaction. First, they subliminally presented to perceivers either African-American or White faces. Perceivers and targets (all of whom were White) were then placed into different rooms where they communicated through microphones and headphones. These interactions were recorded and rated for hostility. Perceivers primed with an African-American face were rated as more hostile, and targets interacting with more hostile perceivers reciprocated with greater hostility themselves. The expectancy effect size was 0.23.

4. Moderators

Failures to replicate and generally small effect sizes prompted some researchers to begin searching for moderators—factors that inhibit or facilitate self-fulfilling prophecies (Jussim et al. 1996). This research has identified some conditions under which powerful self-fulfilling prophecies occurred and many conditions under which self-fulfilling prophecies did not occur. Identified moderators include characteristics of perceivers, targets, and the situation.

4.1 Perceiver Moderators

(a) Perceivers motivated to be accurate or sociable are not likely to produce self-fulfilling prophecies.

(b) Perceivers motivated to confirm a particular belief about a target, or to arrive at a stable impression of a target are more likely to produce self-fulfilling prophecies.

(c) Perceivers with a rigid cognitive style or who are certain of their beliefs about targets are more likely to produce self-fulfilling prophecies.

4.2 Target Moderators

(a) Unclear self-perceptions lead people to become more vulnerable to self-fulfilling prophecies.

(b) When perceivers have something targets want (such as a job), targets often confirm those beliefs in order to create a favorable impression.

(c) When targets desire to facilitate smooth social interactions, they are also more likely to confirm perceivers’ expectations.

(d) When targets believe that perceivers hold a negative belief about them, they often act to disconfirm that belief. Similarly, when their main goal is to defend a threatened identity, or express their personal attributes, they are also likely to disconfirm perceivers’ expectations.

(e) Self-fulfilling prophecies are stronger among students from at least some stigmatized social groups (African-American students, students from lower social class backgrounds, and students with a history of low achievement).

4.3 Situational Moderators

(a) Self-fulfilling prophecies are most common when people enter new situations, such as kindergarten or military service.

(b) Experimental studies conducted in educational contexts were much more likely to obtain self-fulfilling prophecies if the expectancy manipulation occurred early in the school year (presumably, because teachers were more open to the information at that time).

5. Accumulation

Small self-fulfilling prophecy effects, if they accumulate over time, might lead to large differences between targets. If, for example, stereotype-based expectations lead to small differences in the intellectual achievement of students from middle class or poor backgrounds each year, those differences may accumulate over time to lead to large social class differences in achievement. This argument lies at the heart of claims emphasizing the power of self-fulfilling prophecies to contribute to social problems.

Self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom, however, do not accumulate. All studies examining this issue have failed to find accumulation and, instead, have generally found that teacher expectation effects dissipate over time (Smith et al. 1999). Whether self-fulfilling prophecies accumulate outside of the classroom is currently unknown.

6. Future Directions

6.1 Naturalistic Studies Outside Of Classrooms

Nearly all of the early naturalistic research focused on teacher expectations. Thus, the recent emergence of research on self-fulfilling prophecies in close relationships has been sorely needed, and will likely continue. The expectations that parents, employers, therapists, coaches, etc. develop regarding their children, employees, clients, athletes, etc. are all rich areas for future research.

6.2 Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat refers to concern that one’s actions may fulfill a negative cultural stereotype of one’s group (Steele 1997). Such concerns may, paradoxically, lead to the fulfillment of those stereotypes. For example, African-American students who believe they are taking a test of intelligence (triggering potential concern about confirming negative cultural stereotypes regarding African-American intelligence) perform worse than White students; however, when led to believe that the same test is one of ‘problem-solving,’ the differences evaporate. Similar patterns have occurred for women taking standardized math tests (Steele 1997), and for middle class and poor students on intelligence tests (Croizet and Claire 1998). Stereotype threat is a relatively new concept in the social sciences, and has been thus far used primarily to explain demographic differences in standardized test performance. In addition, it helps identify how cultural stereotypes (beliefs about the widespread beliefs regarding groups) may be self-fulfilling, even in the absence of a specific perceiver with an inaccurate stereotype. As such, it promises to remain an important topic in the social sciences for some time.

7. Conclusion

Self-fulfilling prophecies are pervasive in the sense that they occur in many different contexts. They are not pervasive in the sense that self-fulfilling prophecy effect sizes are typically small, and many studies have failed to find them.

Because of the alleged power of expectancy effects to create social problems, teachers have sometimes been accused of perpetrating injustices based on race, class, sex, and other demographic categories. This accusation is unjustified. Teacher expectations predict student achievement primarily because those expectations are accurate. Furthermore, even when inaccurate, teacher expectations do not usually influence students very much; and even when they do influence students, such influence is likely to dissipate over time.

Sometimes, however, both inside and outside the classroom, self-fulfilling prophecies can be powerful. In the classroom, the effects among some groups (low achievers, African-Americans, students from lower social class backgrounds) have been quite powerful. Although self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom do not accumulate, they can be very long lasting— detectable as many as six years after the original teacher-student relationship (Smith et al. 1999).

Outside the classroom, recent research has demonstrated the potentially important role of self-fulfilling prophecies in close relationships, and in the maintenance of socio-cultural stereotypes. Thus, self-fulfilling prophecies occur in a wide variety of contexts and are a major phenomenon linking social perception to social behavior.


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