Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology, ed. Peter Bearman and Peter Hedström, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 294-314

Ponzi's investment scheme, 1920The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” (SFP) was coined in 1948 by Robert Merton to describe “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton 1968: 477). He illustrated the concept with a run on a bank (a fictitious “parable”); his main application was to racial discrimination. The term has since entered social science and even everyday English, a rare feat for a sociological neologism. The concept has been subsequently rediscovered or renamed as the “Oedipus effect” (Popper 1957), “bootstrapped induction” (Barnes 1983), or “Barnesian performativity” (MacKenzie 2006). SFP has been discerned in a congeries of processes (e.g. Henschel 1978): within an individual, as with placebo response; in relations between individuals, such as teacher and student; in relations between collective actors, like states; underlying institutions, such as banks and financial markets; and, most provocatively, between social theory and social reality.

SFP is a particular type of dynamic process. It is not the truism that people’s perceptions depend on their prior beliefs. Nor is it the truism that beliefs, even false ones, have real consequences. To count as SFP, a belief must have consequences of a peculiar kind: consequences that make reality conform to the initial belief. Moreover, I argue that there is an additional defining criterion. The actors within the process—or at least some of them—fail to understand how their own belief has helped to construct that reality; because their belief is eventually validated, they assume that it had been true at the outset. This misapprehension is implicit in Merton’s account. His examples are social pathologies, but not merely in the sense that they are socially undesirable. They are “pathological” for being predicated on misunderstanding. Depositors fail to realize that their own panicked withdrawals cause the bank to collapse; whites fail to realize that their own racial discrimination makes African Americans seem intellectually inferior.

Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology

The chapter opens by proposing an explicit definition of SFP. I argue that the concept is best used to demarcate a narrow range of social processes rather than to encompass all of social life (Barnes 1983). Conceptualization underlines just how difficult it is to empirically demonstrate the existence and significance of SFP. The next two sections reflecting my conviction that analytical sociology must be empirical as well as theoretical. A summary of methods for investigating SFP is followed by a review of systematic evidence for selected phenomena. The final two sections offer explanations for why self-fulfilling prophecies occur: why false or arbitrary beliefs are formed and why they are subsequently fulfilled. My aim is to demonstrate commonalities among substantively diverse phenomena, and to identify the conditions which are most likely to give rise to SFP.



Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford