Let’s say you’re about to interview a woman named Wendy for a job at your company, and you’ve never met her before. You knew a Wendy once, and she was always really grumpy. Of course you know this isn’t the same Wendy, but you’ve got it in your head that she’ll be just like the other Wendy.
She comes in, you do the interview, and it turns out like you expected—even this Wendy seemed grumpy and impatient. The reality, though, is that this Wendy is usually friendly, talkative, and would have been a great fit for the job. Your expectation, though, made her act in exactly the way you expected.
This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we believe someone will act in a certain way, our own behavior toward him or her changes in a way that virtually guarantees that the person will live up to our expectations—good or bad.
In an early study, researchers wanted to see how expectations could determine the course of a phone call. In the study, male college students were paired with female college students, and they ended up having a conversation with each other over the phone.
The women thought the study was as simple as that and simply had a conversation with a man they’d never met.
The men, however, saw a photo of the woman they would be talking with. Now, it wasn’t actually a photo of the person they’d be talking to—half of the men got a photo of an attractive woman and half got a photo of a less attractive woman. This is important, because people tend to think that attractive people are friendlier than unattractive people, which set up the men’s expectations for the phone call.
When the participants finally talked, researchers recorded the women’s sides of the conversations and had another group of people rate the recordings for how friendly the women acted (but they had no idea what the man on the other end of the line had seen earlier).
The results showed a clear self-fulfilling prophecy: women who were talking to men who thought they were attractive were objectively friendlier on the phone compared to women who were talking to men who thought they were unattractive.
In other words, men who thought they were talking to an attractive woman conversed in a way that brought out the friendliness in the person on the other end of the line, but men who thought they were talking to an unattractive woman did so in a way that kept her from truly shining.
So on one hand, expecting a person to act in a negative way can set that person up for failure (even when they otherwise could have been great). On a more optimistic hand, though, expecting the best out of people gives them every opportunity to be their best selves.
For another study on this topic, check out the article: “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.”
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