Scientific Study Probes Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A new study demonstrates the power that other people’s beliefs have over a person’s behavior. Specifically it found that parents may unwittingly cause self-fulfilling prophecies in their children’s behavior…

Time and again, research has demonstrated the power of an individual’s self-fulfilling prophecies – if you envision
yourself tripping as you walk across a stage, you will be more likely to stumble and fall. New evidence suggests that
previous studies have underestimated not only the effect of our own negative prophecies, but also the power of others’ false
beliefs in promoting negative outcomes.

The study involved 115 parents and their seventh grade children. Parents filled out questionnaires that measured their
beliefs about their children’s alcohol use and the children also filled out a questionnaires at the start of the experiment,
including items assessing their past alcohol use. Twelve months later, the children answered a questionnaire that ascertained
their recent alcohol use. The results showed that parents’ beliefs predicted their children’s alcohol use beyond the risk
factors – the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. This self-fulfilling effect was strongest when both parents overestimated
their child’s alcohol use – the synergistic accumulative effect.

However, when one or both parents underestimated their child’s alcohol use, their child’s predicted increase in alcohol use
was similar, showing there was not a synergistic accumulation effect for positive beliefs. This pattern of showing
synergistic accumulation for negative beliefs but not positive ones might reflect the manner in which people process negative
and positive information. For example, research shows that negative information is more salient than positive information,
perceived as more useful, and influences evaluations more. In addition, people also weigh costs more than rewards when making
important decisions. Thus, the greater power of unfavorable versus favorable beliefs may reside in how people process
negative versus positive information.

These results could be significant when applied to the context of stereotyped groups that frequently bear the brunt of
negative, false beliefs. In their everyday lives, individuals from stereotyped groups more often confront unfavorable than
favorable beliefs from multiple perceivers due to consensually held stereotypes. A favorable belief may not be able to
counteract the harmful effect of an unfavorable belief when there is a preponderance of unfavorable beliefs competing with
it. Over time, the negative self-fulfilling prophecy effects could become more powerful as the number of people with negative
perceptions increases.

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