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Self-fulfilling prophecy

Self-fulfilling prophecy is a type of interaction between the perceiver and the target, when perceiver’s expectation or prediction about the target is based on perceiver’s stereotypes about target’s group.

This interaction has four steps.

The first step is perceiver's stereotype about the target based on target’s group membership.

The second step is perceiver’s behavior which expresses in consistency with this stereotype.

The third step is target’s reaction to perceiver’s behavior in a way which confirms the expectation.

The fourth step is strengthening of perceiver’s belief that stereotype is valid. (Steiner, 2017)

Generally, the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy can be described as “what you expect is what you get” (Rosental & Jacobson, 1966), for instance, the knowledge of the student’s IQ can impact teacher’s behavior, and so the prejudice “students with better IQ results are smarter and will show better results in class” expressed through praise or disregard affects the student's’ self-esteem and reaction. Thus, prejudice is the main part of self-fulfilling prophecy.

According to Dr. Keon West’s observation of theories of prejudice (2012), there are several driving forces of prejudice: struggle for resources (Realistic Conflict Theory), fear of mortality (Terror Management Theory), avoidance of uncertainty (Uncertainty Reduction Theory), looking for hierarchy (Social Dominance Theory), and building esteem (Social Identity Theory).

Respectively, it is possible to consider different types of self-fulfilling prophecy, based on these driving forces of prejudice.

The struggle for resources can be illustrated with Christopher Willson’s novel “Cotton” (2005), when white people group struggles for the control and power, and uses the prejudice “whites are better than people of color” to avoid black people from voting and other social achievements. That is why Byron Clement when speaking to Lee is concerned about Lee looks like white, while being actually black (p. 32-34).

The fear of mortality can be illustrated by the episode of meeting James Jones VII, when Lee argues that his group has real immortal values: “They got the police. They got guns. They got politicians. They got the jobs. … We got right. We got truth. We got justice. We got future.” (p. 41-42). This can be an example of positive self-fulfilled prophecy.

The avoidance of uncertainty can be actually illustrated by the main conflict of the novel - white boy born in black family and living in black community. But, as a specific example, there is an episode when Mama comes to the attorney to authenticate Lee as a black, because both black and white schools refused to accept him (p. 16-18). Attributing the son to a certain group, the mother thus provided him with understandable behavioral prescriptions but at the same time she exposed him to a certain prejudice and, thus, to certain self-fulfilling prophecy. Being accepted as black, Lee acts as black.

The most interesting theory is Theory of Social Dominance because it is disputable question, if individuals need just hierarchy, no matter where the individual’s group has place in it, or the need for a hierarchy is associated with the desire to be on top of it. “Cotton” has evidence of both. From one hand, Lee by himself wants just to belong to his family and its place in social hierarchy is not crucial for him. But from the other hand, the movement for the black rights may be interpreted as willing to be on the top of the hierarchy: “...we got administration too if they make their minds up” (p. 42).

Finally, the Social Identity Theory which argues that prejudice reflects the need to build esteem, and reducing esteem encourages prejudice. It is a really complicated problem, and it is reasonable to refer the theme of school education and its role in individual’s future which is actually the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, the experiment of Rosental and Jacobson describes teachers as perceivers and students as targets, and this is a plain example of how school works for self-fulfilling prophecy. But the video of Dalton Sherman’s speech “Do you believe in me?”, from one side, makes positive self-fulfilling prophecy for himself and by himself (“we, kids, are future”), and from the other side, prevents other from negative prophecies. And the video “Exam Results” raises more systematical problem: how the grading system and the rating of schools in our education build value/esteem bias and thus makes self-fulfilling prophecy emerging and how it can affect individual’s life and career.

Concluding this, the mechanisms of prejudice are complicated but basically refer individual's or group’s fear of being deprived of some benefits: status, resources, immortality, power etc. And self-fulfilling prophecy helps to support the prejudice avoiding changes.


Rosenthal, R., SL Jacobson, L. (1966). Teachers' expectancies: Determinates of pupils' IQ gains. Psychological Reports, 19, 115-118.

Steiner, L. (2017). Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. [Video Lecture]. Retrieved from

West, K (2012). Explanations of Prejudice. [Video Lecture]. Retrieved from

Wilson, C. (2005). Cotton: A Novel. Orlando, FL. Hartcourt, INC.

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