• Santiago Garcia

How The Environment Shapes Our Destiny: The Influence & Implications of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Have you ever believed in somebody’s potential and pushed them harder to bring that capability to life? Was there ever a friend whom you believed was going to perform well on a test, and therefore proceeded to assist them in any way possible to ensure they got an “A”? If so, you may have experienced the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. This concept occurs when an individual has some sort of expectation of another person’s destiny/outcome and takes additional measures to make it come to life.

One of the most prominent examples and simplest ways of understanding, as cited in Rosenthal’s research article, is the examination of the self-fulfilling prophecy in the Pygmalion study in which elementary school teachers were informed of students who were expected to intellectually “bloom.” While these students were at the same level of innate intellectual ability, the teachers put more effort into developing the children labeled as mentally gifted. This resulted in the so called “gifted” children to achieve a higher rate of success; this occurred because the teachers, unaware of their actions, had treated the students as if they were destined for advanced cognitive development.

In distinguishing this phenomenon from other cognitive concepts, it is important to understand that the self-fulfilling prophecy cannot/does not occur internally. The self-fulfilling prophecy is interpersonal in nature, meaning that it relates to relationships and communication between people. What this means is that somebody cannot believe that they are going to achieve a certain outcome, and then act on their own accord to make it happen. While it is possible to confuse the two, the self-fulfilling prophecy is not the power of suggestion and does not influence the subconscious mind. The power of suggestion is intrapersonal in nature and occurs when an individual intrinsically expects something to happen and changes their behavior to aid in bringing into reality the expected outcome. The power of suggestion is popular in mental performance for elite athletes, life coaches, and “health-hack” gurus looking to motivate and encourage others. It is possible, however, for teachers, coaches or mentors experiencing the self-fulfilling prophecy to see talent in individuals in any field or branch of study. This concept is not restrictive to specific environments but must occur between two or more people.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is defined as “something that you cause to happen by saying and expecting that it will happen” (Cambridge, 2019). A key aspect of the self-fulfilling prophecy is that it occurs at an explicit level; those experiencing this phenomenon are not internally aware that their way of thinking/belief system/attitude influences the outcome of an event. In the common social situation, individuals who believe in people’s potential, for instance, are not aware that they are doing so. Individuals who are not aware of the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy may not be able to draw the correlation between their intent and actions on another person’s outcome and vice versa. Those who are cognizant of the influence this phenomenon can have on an outcome are able to leverage this for maximum results.

Research in a multitude of environments on the self-fulfilling prophecy suggests that this concept can influence cognitive function and the social situation in both negative and positive ways. In a normal world, individuals under specific circumstances will exhibit higher confidence and success depending on the probability of a given event’s outcome. Furthermore, individuals susceptible to a higher influence of the self-fulfilling prophecy will go to drastic means to either prove or disprove their respective belief (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152).

What was principally a neologism of theory has grown to be one of the most conventional phenomena in social psychology. This concept has been tested primarily in the realm of education (Rosenthal, 2002, p.151). One of the most well supported experiments that tests the validity of this concept was performed by Rosenthal and Jacobson. Rosenthal proposed the idea of examining the self-fulfilling prophecy in a school, rather than in a hospital, factory, or a mental health clinic. Rosenthal chose the Oak School, an elementary school located in South San Francisco, as the research site (Rosenthal, 2002, p.151). This procedure, as described by Rosenthal consisted of a prolonged process designed to test the students of varying grade levels at Oak School.

The teachers of Oak School administered Flanagan’s Test of General Ability, an Intellectual Quotient test, to students in grades one through six and were told that it would help to identify children expected to bloom, or experience an intellectual growth spurt, during the ensuing academic year (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152). Following this examination, a group consisting of seven students were randomly selected to be classified as “bloomers.” These teachers were informed of the selected students’ names over the course of the academic year. Children from whom teachers expected increased intellectual capacity reflected such gains (Rosenthal,2002, p.152). Comments such as, “When teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development,” were prevalent due to the statistically significant advantage that favored the “bloomers” (Rosenthal,2002, p.153). So why exactly does this experiment not only justify Rosenthal’s hypothesis, but directly show a correlation between expectation and reality?

Rosenthal proposed a four-factor theory that attempts to explain how teacher’s expectations directly influenced students’ development, “We hypothesized that four major categories of teacher behaviors are involved” (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152). The first factor, climate, refers to the warmer socioemotional environment that teachers tend to create for students for whom they have higher expectations” (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152). Such a hypothesis largely reflects the notion that nurturing children in a “firm, but warm” manner provides an optimal environment for development. The input factor “refers to the tendency for teachers to teach more material to their ‘special’ students” (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152). Individuals understanding the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy can see in this factor a legitimate connection between a desired result and making additional/extraneous efforts to bring the expectation to life. The output factor “refers to the tendency for teachers to call on these students more often for answers” (Rosenthal,2002, p.152). Whether or not these teachers were conscious of their decisions to call on the “bloomers,” their choices to do so provided an advantage for the selected students to engage more in the classroom. Being more active and engaged in a classroom undeniably increases an individual’s capacity to perform to his/her potential.

The fourth factor, feedback, “refers to the tendency for teachers to give more differentiated feedback to these students. By feedback, we mean that the response is contingent on the correctness or incorrectness of the student’s response and that the content of the feedback is directly related to what the student has said” (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152). In an environment where the end goal is to learn and develop, feedback on an individual’s progress is invaluable. For the students whom the teachers were providing more attention to, they received immediate and clear feedback on whether they could answer a question correctly.

Rosenthal and Harris utilized meta-analyses to objectify the observations from the four-factor theory, “The quantitative estimates were in the form of average effect size rs and were computed for both the E-M and the M-O links for each of the four factors” (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152). Every estimate on the impact of the self-fulfilling prophecy returned statistically significant, suggesting that teachers’ expectations and classroom decisions directly contributed to students’ performance. Justifying these results, the strengths of the E-M had a strong correlation, r=.88, and the average magnitudes of the correlations for the climate and input factors showed an r size of 28 (Rosenthal, 2002, p.152). Reflecting on the significance values, r sizes of this extent are enough to predict and explain the nearly twice-as-high test scores for students labeled as “bloomers.”

Rosenthal’s experimental design investigates the validity to which the self-fulfilling prophecy is effective regarding a seemingly objective assessment. The qualitative and quantitative results sufficiently justify the notion that teachers at Oak School went above and beyond to afford additional opportunities and attention to students labeled as “bloomers.” As hypothesized, the “bloomers” did just that, achieving scores significantly higher than their counterparts who were not categorized as intellectually gifted.

As described, Rosenthal’s investigation Pygmalion in the Classroom is the leading demonstration which sought to quantify this phenomenon. A multitude of meta-analyses in schools, workplaces, militaries, courtrooms, summer camps, and nursing homes repeatedly confirm this effect (Eden, 2014).

The way one thinks, acts, and perceives the outside world is a result of internal and external factors that one may or may not be cognizant of. Robert Rosenthal defined the self-fulfilling prophecy as “the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Eden, 2014). This phenomenon classifies a multitude of leader-follower relationships in the social situation. Mangers, supervisors, coaches, commanders, teachers, and just about anybody in a position of leadership can have an influence on their followers. When leaders’ expectations of their followers are altered, for better or for worse, leaders behave in ways that will influence their followers to behave better or worse.

Two foundational aspects of social psychology help to explain the impact of the self-fulfilling prophecy in the social situation. The first concept, “human thought, emotion, and behavior is influenced by the immediate social situation” (Jones, 2019), supports the notion that the Pygmalion effect directly plays a role in what an individual thinks, feels, and does. In the immediate social situation, the self-fulfilling prophecy is an interpersonal motivational phenomenon that begins first with a shift in the leader’s expectations. This expectation is then conveyed to followers (orally or nonverbally) through the leader’s behavior, causing an increase/decrease in motivation, productivity, attitude, and situational performance. The resulting increase or decrease in behavior reinforces the leader’s expectations, solidifying the interpersonal exchange of expectations into the outcome. It is by this that one can see the influence of the immediate social situation on the self-fulfilling prophecy, and vice versa.

The very nature of the self-fulfilling prophecy supports the second concept of social psychology, “humans interpret social relationships using limited and imperfect social cognition” (Jones, 2019). How individuals in positions of authority interact and the expectations they set forth with their followers is a result of external factors that the individuals may not be aware or cognizant of. To better understand this, think back to Rosenthal’s elementary school study. The teachers and the children had no true understanding of what was going on. Their scope of knowledge was limited, with no additional information other than the children chosen to be labeled “gifted”, and the instructions to administer the assessment. Not understanding that a label doesn’t define somebody, and succumbing to the self-fulfilling prophecy, the teachers at Oak School subconsciously went out of their way to provide advantages to the “gifted” children.

As a cadet at the Air Force Academy, the majority of my classmates track select to Undergraduate Pilot Training upon graduation. This is the first step of many, for those seeking to achieve their dream of becoming an Air Force aviator. In understanding the power and prevalence of the self-fulfilling prophecy in a variety of well justified experiments, it is fitting to address the specific social setting that has laid the foundation for thousands of Air Force pilots, and ask the question, “to what extent does the expectancy effect play a role in instructor pilot to pilot trainee relationships, and the impact this effect has on pilot trainees success?”

Envision a top-tier Instructor Pilot (IP) who happens to be a graduate of the Air Force Academy, that is presented with a brand-new class of trainees of which no prior information is given, other than their respective commissioning sources. For whatever reason, this IP is led to believe that since he went on to be an elite aviator, that Air Force Academy graduates are especially motivated, prepared, and qualified to be pilots, and therefore more likely to be successful in relation to their ROTC, OTS, Air National Guard, and international exchange classmates. Rosenthal’s research suggests that this IP is more likely to treat Air Force Academy graduates in a manner that would make them more successful.

Perhaps this IP would spend more time with the Air Force Academy graduates, ensuring they understand every concept thoroughly before stepping to the jet, or push the graduates harder and have a higher standard in daily rides than he would for non-graduates, or maybe the notion of having a communal background could be enough to offset relevant stressors? Conducting a study in this setting, that replicates the investigate approach used by Rosenthal in the Elementary School study would help in understanding the extent to which the labeling of pilot trainees and leaders’ perceptions/expectations play a role in trainees’ success at Undergraduate Pilot Training.


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