Self-Fulfilling Prophecies:

 

                                                                                                             "You dummy!

                                                                                                               you criminal"

    "Yes master,

     As you command, master"

 

 

    Imagine the awesome power of being able to make prophecies that were self-fulfilling.    Merely by telling someone that they will succeed or fail, the prophet with the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy, would make that person succeed or fail.   The prophet could give the blessing of a long and happy life, by telling someone that they will have a long and happy life; and the prophet could deliver a miserable, short life of failure by the prediction of a miserable, short life of failure.

    But sociologists have suggested that parents, teachers, judges, banks, employers, and other gatekeepers often deliver self-fulfilling prophecies, all the time.   Very often opportunities depend on the judgments of parents, teachers, judges, banks or employers; if they do not think that one is likely to succeed, then one will not be given the chance to succeed.   If they decide that one is a bad risk for positions of power and responsibility, one will usually never get the chance to show that one is a good risk.   moreover, one's self-conception is often influenced by social position and by the opinions of others.

    One of the most common and paradoxical processes of positive feedback is the self-fulfilling prophecy.    In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the belief that something is true about some individual or group causes them to act in some a way that realizes the prophecy.  The most serious and most investigated processes of self-fulfilling prophecies are the negative effects of stigma.

    Gunnar Myrdal argued that one of the ways that African Americans were deprived of credit, education, housing, jobs, or housing was stigmatizing and stereotyping beliefs by the majority.   The point is that if an African American businessman cannot get credit, then he or she will have a greater difficulty in making a go a business, and so s/he will be a bad credit risk.   If an African American student is regarded as poor student, then he or she will be placed in a track and in a situation which will produce poor academic skills and an anti-academic self-image, so that he or she will become a poor student.   If African Americans have great difficulty getting decent housing, because realtors or neighbors are afraid of the neighborhood changing its racial composition, then there will be great pressure to move into any neighborhood that allows African Americans.  Therefore, when  one or a few African Americans move into a neighborhood, it may change its racial composition.   And so on.

    Robert K. Merton called attention to the role of stigmatizing, self-fulfilling prophecies in race relations and in education.    The idea was that if teachers, employers and other members of the elite, believe that some group such as women, African Americans or the poor are unlikely to succeed, then they will act in such a way as to make that group less likely to succeed.   But the lesser success that results then reinforces the belief, and is taken to warrant it for others.

    Both in the analysis of crime, of race, and of gender, stigma and labels play central roles.   Stigma not only has a direct negative effect on life chances (for example, if employers regard one as stupid, incompetent or untrustworthy, then one is less likely to ever be given the chance to prove one's intelligence, competence or trustworthyness.   The ways in which labels often interact with and depend on a lack of social and economic resources was particularly clearly illustrated by Chambliss' study of  labeling of students, "The Saints and the Roughnecks."   The sense by teachers, police, judges and other gatekeepers that the "roughnecks" were criminal and were bad students led to those gatekeepers acting in such a way that the roughnecks almost universally ended up with a police record and failed to graduate from school.

    Self-fulfilling prophecies play a very important role in the dynamics of group conflict.   The belief that some other group is a threat will usually lead to a group's acting in a way that is more aggressive and threatening to them.   But to act in a way that is aggressive and threatening will often cause the group to be more aggressive.   Similarly, the belief that a group is trustworthy is a precondition to reaching any kind of agreement with them.  Often the only way to reach a fair bargain is to bargain in good faith.   If most Jews believe that "You can never trust an Arab," and most Arabs believe that "You can never trust a Jew" then the only kind of peace that is obtainable may be an armed truce.

    Rosenthal did a classic set of studies to show the effect of teacher expectations on student performance.   he found that even when teachers were trying to act fairly and were unaware that their actions were influencing student performance, the belief that some set of students were better or worse causes those students to excell or to fail.

    Often, our relations with each other are governed by the dynamic of a self-fulfilling prophecy.   The man who decides that this neighbor will not loan him his rake, and who storms over to his neighbor's house to spit: "You know what you can do with your damned rake!" is certainly not going to get the loan of a rake.   In a sense he was right; the neighbor will not loan him the rake.   And there are far more serious cases were trust and mutual respect are important.   If one believes that "you can never trust an Arab,"  then the kind of arrangements that one will be willing to accept or propose will insure that "you can never trust an Arab."