Self Fulfilling Prophecy

Definition of Self Fulfilling Prophecy

A self fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that comes true because characters act on it believing it to be true. Therefore, the actions that the characters take after hearing the prediction directly cause it to happen; if the prediction had never been made, the results might have been different.

The definition of self fulfilling prophecy was created by a sociologist named Robert K. Merton in 1948. He described the phenomenon of behavioral confirmation, in which someone believes something to be true—regardless of whether it is or not—and acts according to this belief, or delusion. When things turns out the way the person expected according to this belief the person believes the original thesis was true rather than seeing it as an effect of their own actions.

There is also an opposite concept of self-defeating prophecy, in which a person hears a prediction and acts in rebellion toward it, therefore making that prophecy not come true. A famous example was the worry around the year 2000 and what would happen when computer clocks rolled over, commonly known as Y2K. There was so much fervor over this problem that the year change went ahead with very few glitches.

Common Examples of Self Fulfilling Prophecy

There are a few common ways in which self fulfilling prophecies present themselves in daily life. Here are some familiar examples of self fulfilling prophecy:

  • Stock market fluctuations: When it is predicted that a stock will go up or down, investors often react accordingly, either selling if it’s going down or buying if it’s going up. This behavior then causes the stock to change as predicted. If that prediction hadn’t been made, however, the stock would not have changed as it did.
  • Placebo effect: When people take a drug believing it will improve their health, their health often does improve whether or not the drug was effective. This self fulfilling prophecy example both shows how powerful belief can be and also the difficulties of creating medications that are more effectives than placebos.
  • Belief in one’s own intelligence/stupidity/talent/clumsiness: Many studies have been done that show someone’s belief of their own skills effect results more than the skills themselves. For example, if someone thinks he is no good at a certain academic subject he might not study as hard, thinking it will do no good. Then, when he fails the test he will not be surprised, but also could have gotten a different result if there had been a different belief system in place to begin with.
  • Voting: Sometimes people support a certain candidate’s viewpoints and platform, yet believe that candidate to be unelectable. This causes the citizens to not vote for that candidate, thus making it so that the candidate does not get elected.

Significance of Self Fulfilling Prophecy in Literature

Self fulfilling prophecy examples are especially popular in myth and legend. There are several examples of self fulfilling prophecies in Greek drama in particular, the most notable of which is the story of Oedipus. However, there are many more stories in which a prophecy is made and the characters who hear it end up ensuring that it comes to pass due to the actions they take in response to the prophecy. Self fulfilling prophecies are most common in myths and legends and genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and young adult literature because a prophecy must be made and the character must put real stock into the prophecy in order for it to come true. There can be subtler self fulfilling prophecy examples in other works of fiction—for example, if someone says that a character will never amount to anything and this comes true because the character is stripped of confidence in himself due to this comment. However, it is easiest to find in stories that already have an element of the supernatural in them in which prophecies can actually come true.

Examples of Self Fulfilling Prophecy in Literature

Example #1

OEDIPUS: To Delphi, and Apollo sent me back
Baulked of the knowledge that I came to seek.
But other grievous things he prophesied,
Woes, lamentations, mourning, portents dire;
To wit I should defile my mother’s bed
And raise up seed too loathsome to behold,
And slay the father from whose loins I sprang.

(Oedipus the King by Sophocles)

It was prophesied to Oedipus’s father, Laius, that his son would someday kill him, and so Laius sent Oedipus away. Unfortunately, this meant that Oedipus never knew who his real parents were. Thus, when he met them and fell in love with his mother and killed his father it was out of ignorance of their true identities. Had Laius not believed the prophecy about Oedipus and had not sent him away Oedipus would have, at least, known who his parents were. It’s possible that Oedipus still would have murdered his father for another cause. However, Laius’s belief in the prophecy and the actions he took as a result of hearing the prophecy led to the series of events that made this example of self fulfilling prophecy come true.

Example #2

FIRST APPARITION: Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff!
Beware the Thane of Fife! Dismiss me. Enough.

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

The tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare is another example of self fulfilling prophecy. There is a strong supernatural element in the narrative, and in this excerpt a ghost warns Macbeth to be aware of Macduff. Fearing Macduff’s growing powers, Macbeth orders the deaths of Macduff’s family in order to dissuade him from coming after Macbeth. This action has the opposite consequence, and causes Macduff to want to kill Macbeth. Indeed, Macduff does kill Macbeth at the end of the play, fulfilling the prophecy that was made to Macbeth.

Example #3

“But Harry, never forget that what the prophecy says is only significant because Voldemort made it so. I told you this at the end of last year. Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him –and in doing so, he made you the person who would be most dangerous to him!”
“But it comes to the same— ”
“No, it doesn’t!” said Dumbledore, sounding impatient now. (…) “If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant anything? Of course not! Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled?”
“But,” said Harry, bewildered, “but last year, you said one of us would have to kill the other –”
“Harry, Harry, only because Voldemort made a grave error, and acted on Professor Trelawney’s words [i.e., the prophecy]! If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he have imparted in you a furious desire for revenge? Of course not! (…) Voldemort himself created his worst enemy… (…) He heard the prophecy and he leapt into action, with the result that he (…) handpicked the man most likely to finish him…”

(Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling)

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has one of the best examples of self fulfilling prophecy in all of literature. The villain character of Voldemort hears a prophecy that states that a boy born at a certain time will lead to his downfall. In order to avert this potentiality, Voldemort decides the prophecy is probably about Harry Potter and goes to kill him. He is thwarted in this attempt, and causes the conditions that make Harry Potter later become the enemy Voldemort feared he would be. However, in the above excerpt, the mentor figure of Dumbledore makes clear that it’s only because Voldemort acted as though the prophecy would come true that the prophecy did indeed come true. If he hadn’t heard the prophecy, he would not have created his own worst enemy in Harry. As Dumbledore points out, not all prophecies made end up coming true, but Voldemort ensured that this one would through his own actions.

Test Your Knowledge of Self Fulfilling Prophecy

1. Which of the following statements is the best self fulfilling prophecy definition?
A. A prophecy that becomes true because of characters’ reactions to it, directly causing it to come true.
B. A false statement that cannot ever come true.
C. A prediction that does not come true because characters act in rebellion to it.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following genres is most likely to have an example of self fulfilling prophecy?
A. True crime thriller
B. Young adult fantasy
C. Epistolary romance

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. What would happen if someone heard a prophecy and did not act on it?
A. It would definitely come true.
B. It would definitely not come true.
C. It might or might not come true.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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