Self-fulfilling Prophecies

"If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” ~ Henry Ford

In a previous newsletter, we talked about the role beliefs and perceptions play in your ability to age well. Beliefs were defined as a person’s habit of trusting someone or something based on deeply embedded values and held to be true – whether or not they are. Perceptions were defined as a person’s sensory experience of the world. Sensory experience organizes and interprets information, and shapes reactions.

This newsletter takes the discussion a step further and looks at self-fulfilling prophecies - the notion that an individual’s expectations regarding the self or someone else eventually results in either of them acting in ways that confirm the expectations. But first a brief review.

Beliefs affect perception just as a lens affects light passing through it. When you believe the world  is a fearful place, your perception of the world will be filled with evidence that proves the belief. Conversely, when you believe the world is a safe place, your perception will be filled with evidence that proves it.

Sofia and Antonio’s story was a good example:

Two people are walking down the street. Sofia has had dogs since she was a child, she knows how to be with them. She keeps treats in her pocket for any dog she meets on her walks. Antonio has been bitten by several dogs, he has an irrational fear of dogs that he cannot control and is constantly afraid of seeing them. Suddenly, Sonny, a golden retriever, trots toward them.

Sofia digs in her pocket for a treat and smiles. The dog runs toward her. Antonio starts to sweat. His eyes dilate, his heart beats faster, and his fists clench. The dog, sensing his fear, starts to growl.

If this dynamic continues to its conclusion, Antonio may get bit again, thereby fulfilling his expectations. His fear may become a self-fulfilling prophecy creating predictable and repetitive cycles of conflict in life. 

Sofia believes Sonny is a good friend. Antonio believes he is a vicious threat. Both are observing the same dog at the same time, but they are perceiving the situation differently. The dog could have floppy ears and a wagging tail, but if Antonio thinks dogs are dangerous, then he will ignore information to the contrary and actually change his perception of the situation to reflect his belief system.

Very interesting, but what does that have to do with aging, you might ask. Let’s use Gene’s story as an example.

Gene is a 75-year-old widower who thought he was too old to start playing golf and too old to have a lady friend. His neighbor convinced him that age was only a number and not reflective of what he could or couldn’t do.  He was bored and lonely; so he decided to explore the idea more thoroughly. Why not?

After dwelling on it for awhile, Gene decided, perhaps, he should give the idea a chance. So, he tried playing golf for the first time and loved it. He decided to join a Seniors’ Golf League with his neighbor. He also went to the Senior Center and met several women. Maybe he was wrong and needed to adopt a new belief. Had he held on to the previous one, he would be staying home, sitting on the couch, and being alone.  

Simply put, your beliefs are the lens through which you perceive reality. In turn, you see the world in a way that makes your beliefs appear as absolutely true. People who believe they are depressed will find things to be depressed about, people who believe they are happy will find things to be happy about, and people who believe they are successful will see the successes they achieve. 

Your beliefs can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy which is defined as

the sociopsychological phenomenon of someone "predicting" or expecting something, and this ‘prediction’ or expectation coming true simply because the person believes it will and the person's resulting behaviors align to fulfill the belief.

There are two types of self-fulfilling prophecies: self-imposed, which occurs when your expectations influence your actions and other-imposed, which occurs when others' expectations influence your behavior.

Think about Gene, the 75-year-old man who believed he was too old. Let’s say he wanted to ask a woman he met at the senior center to have coffee. Based on his prior belief, he predicted she would reject him, but he decided to ask anyway.

With his hands shoved in his pockets and his head down, Gene walked up to her. Very quietly he mumbled, "I know you probably don't want to go out with me, but I wondered if you want to get a cup of coffee after class?" She turned him down.

This is an example of a self-imposed self-fulfilling prophecy. Gene’s prediction was true. However, the woman may have found him attractive, but his negative expectations for himself affected his body language and the way he phrased his request, which caused her to say no. Had Gene spoken to her based on his new way of thinking, the outcome may have been different.

An example of an “other-imposed” prophecy is known as the Pygmalion Effect, which was discussed in a study published in Education Next. Researchers found that white teachers had lower expectations for the higher education success of their black students than they did for white students with similar profiles. Black students internalized these predictions and were less likely to attend college after high school because of them. The following video explains the phenomenon well.

 Behind your actions, you must examine the underlying beliefs; the lens through which you perceive the world. They are influential.

What if you want to change your beliefs? The following video by self-help author, Bob Proctor, offers one possibility.

Your beliefs and perceptions influence how you age – will yours allow you to age well?