Two Self-fulfilling Prophecies Are Stronger, and More Harmful, Than One

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.

When two or more people have similar false beliefs about another person, it’s possible this could influence the person’s behavior. Researchers Stephanie Madon, Max Guyll, Richard Spoth, and Jennifer Willard, all at Iowa State University, examined this phenomenon to see how much influence those collective beliefs have in determining a positive or negative reality.

The researchers tested whether the false beliefs of mothers and fathers could predict the amount of drinking done by their adolescent children over the course of a year. Their study, “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Synergistic Accumulative Effect of Parents’ Beliefs on Children’s Drinking Behavior,” appeared in the December 2004 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

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.

For more information, contact Madon at [email protected]. A full copy of the article is available at the APS Media Center at

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public’s interest.

From American Psychological Society

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