Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

“Whether you think you can.  Or think you can’t.  You’re right.” ~ Henry Ford

“Our lives are not defined by what happens to us, but by how we react to what happens.  A positive attitude is a catalyst — a spark that creates extraordinary results.” ~ unknown

“A PESSIMIST is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an OPTIMIST is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” ~ Harry Truman

I have been thinking about self-fulfilling prophecies lately…

Those are three favorites from among my collection of quotes.  Each sums up an important concept in just a few words.  In today’s vernacular, they would be considered sound bites.  Clear, concise statements often go farther than long, complex explanations.  One might say these three quotes relate to optimism vs. pessimism and that is correct, as far as it goes, but might they also be telling us something about self-fulfilling prophecy?

Lately, I have been reading a book titled, “The Art of Aging” by Sherwin B. Nuland, MD.  If you are aging, or think you might someday, I highly recommend you read it.  I became curious about this author after reading about his death in Time Magazine a couple of months ago.  It’s not uncommon for me to get curious about some little tidbit I read and then to follow that curiosity to its source.  Getting a couple of books to read by Dr. Nuland has reinforced that habit.

I am only about halfway through “The Art of Aging”, but already, I am aware of a recurring theme — that of the self-fulfilling prophecy.  The author spends some time discussing the physical symptoms of aging, but he also spends a great deal of time discussing aging with some people who have aged well, looking for behaviors or beliefs they share.  Some people are religious, some are not.  Some are in good physical condition, others not so much.  What they do have in common is a way of viewing themselves and their future in ways that may seem different on the surface, but underneath, are very much alike.

… and the reason for that is the common threads I picked up from Dr. Nuland’s observations and writing.

The sociologist, Robert K. Merton, developed a concept to explain how a belief or expectation directly affects an outcome.  This is nothing new, however.  Ever heard the saying, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”?  The truth of that idiom has been known for a long, long time, but Merton formalized the concept in modern sociology.  It is summed up in this diagram of the Pygmalion Effect or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:


The diagram is pretty straight-forward, but when I first saw it, I thought, “Okay, yeah, maybe sometimes.” But others aren’t always involved with me.  For example, when I first began to learn about photography, I had trouble grappling with apertures and F-stops and ISOs and shutter speeds to the point where I started to question my ability to learn something new, which lead to other self-doubts seemingly confirming my inability to learn, which lead to low self-esteem, which lead to me giving up, and naturally, I wasn’t able to learn.  Finally, thankfully, I took a step back to have a look at the forest instead of those four frustrating trees.  I forgot about photography and went out to the garden to pull weeds and harvest beans and soon became aware of what a wonderful garden I had.  Now, with a source of pride and a feeling of success, my mind started working subconsciously on the photography puzzle and I discovered a way that I could learn and grasp the technical issues that had previously frustrated me.  So in the diagram above, I can also substitute “Me and My” for “Our and Others” and find it to be just as valid.


In the example of the square flow-chart above, sometimes I might be the “boss” and in other cases I might be “Laci”.  And now, I “get it”  both diagrams are saying the same thing.

I was a well-behaved kid until my parents started treating me in a distrustful manner.  Looking back, I understand their concerns for a teenage daughter, but at the time, I started misbehaving in reaction.  I remember my thoughts at the time, “If they are not going to trust me and my judgment, I might as well do something to deserve that treatment and have some fun while I’m at it.”  What followed that is a period of years that I wish I could do over, but I mention it here to make a point.

Quoting from the Psychology Today article:

“Let’s say, for example, that I’m going to a party where I don’t know many people. If I believe I don’t make a good first impression, or I worry that nobody will talk to me, I will probably enter the party acting awkward, anxious, and standoffish. In turn, people are likely to interact with me with less enthusiasm, or they may ignore or shun me. Which only reinforces my belief that I’m not good with people I don’t know.

“If, by contrast, I enter the party believing that I’m good with people I don’t know and expecting to make new friends, I’m likely to be outgoing, engaging, and less apt to take a cold shoulder personally. As a result, people will likely respond amiably to my friendliness and I may indeed make new friends.”

When I first read that, I had an “Ah ha!” moment, because that first paragraph is describing me in social situations.  And, I thought, how may other people does that also describe?  I suspect we are all guilty of negative self-fulfilling prophecies at various times in our lives.  “I’m no good at ______.”  “I can’t ______.”  I know I’ve done my share of that sort of negative self-talk.

In the book, “The Art of Aging”, Dr. Nuland talks about physical and mental declines in terms of averages and extremes.  It is possible, and a few people do, live into their 90s and 100s and remain mentally and physically able to do as much as people 30 years their junior.    There are a few people who suffer severe mental and/or physical decline in their 50s or 40s or even younger.  Most of us, however, fall somewhere in between those two extremes.  By the same token, some people who suffer a severe stroke never recover while others manage to rebuild themselves and resume a full and active life.

Illness and injury can deal us a bad hand, but that doesn’t mean we should throw in our cards.  A prime example comes to mind and that is Stephen Hawking.  He was diagnosed with ALS when he was only 21 years old.  Few who contract this terminal disease live more than ten years, yet Hawking has lived more than 50 so far.  He married twice, fathered three children, and has been one of the most brilliant and accomplished physicists in history.  I somehow think he set his own self-fulfilling prophecy in motion half a century ago and it has carried him through an amazing life.  He is now 72 years old — remarkably close to the average life expectancy of 76 for men in the U.S. today.  He has had a very difficult and challenging life, yet he managed to have an amazingly full life despite being paralyzed and eventually even unable to talk.

One thing Dr. Nuland wrote, which really struck me is that (and I am paraphrasing here) there are no absolutes or guarantees but he has observed that:

  • more often than not when a person does not work at being all they can be throughout the aging process, his or her final decline is likely to be slow and difficult and:
  • more often than not when a person works hard at remaining physically and mentally active while being aware of their limitations, his or her final decline is likely to be of short duration.

“Life isn’t about how you survived the storm.  It’s about how you danced in the rain.”  ~ unknown

So, it would seem that the key to success in life and the key to aging “gracefully” are one and the same.  Life will throw some number of challenges in front of us — some mere speed bumps and others might be car-swallowing potholes.  How we choose to deal with those challenges will become our own self-fulfilling prophecies.  Knowing that how I choose to respond to aging, as well as life’s challenges, will have an impact on how long I live and how I die…  Well, that is pretty motivating, isn’t it?

Or maybe the best thing is to sum it up in another sound bite:
Do the best you can with what you’ve got.

The Art of Aging, by Sherwin B. Nuland, 2008 Random House Trade Paperback Edition
The Psychology of a Self Fulfilling Prophesy, by Tim, Mind Science 101
Using Self-Fulfilling Prophecies to Your Advantage, by Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., Psychology Today blog




16 thoughts on “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

  1. Hi Briar! Stephen Hawkings is still alive, internet death hoax! I will be back later to comment further, I can relate to all you said!!!


  2. Thanks for that info, Sharon! I did a search to find out if he was still alive. It never occurred to me that there would be a hoax about his death. I have edited the blog text accordingly.


  3. Very interesting blog, Briar. I have only sped read it currently as my mind is in a bit of a fog at the moment but I touched on points that were easier to wrap my muddle around at the moment. Yes, Stephen Hawking is an amazing character, for sure.

    I have thought of self prophecy on a macro level recently as I mentioned in a comment on my blog in a brief thread we were having about the US war machine and the apparent resumption of the Cold War with Russia. Interesting to see you think about it on the more micro level.

    Thinking of how I have bucked self prophecy and I think I have, at least some of the time. I was given a five year death sentence, more or less, at one point in my life. I didn’t accept it as something written in stone. I just went on in sort of an extreme somewhat dazed Zen state for better and worse. Sometimes more so than other times and bouncing around your previous topic at times. I have designed and structured where I wanted to go and often achieved those goals. And sometimes I have had to just let go and realize I am in Serenity Prayer mode. Currently, feel very much in SP mode, lol.

    Anyway, this new blog like the last requires a re-reading and a re-thinking at least one more time!


    1. I’m afraid I only buy into the Serenity Prayer on the macro things. If it’s micro, then “accept” can mean “I give up” — not always, mind you, but it’s a trap I’m wary of falling into. I very much doubt Stephen Hawking meekly accepted his ALS diagnosis. He couldn’t make the disease go away, but neither did he give up. For myself, I have changed the beginning of the Serenity Prayer to something more like “Grant me the strength to make the best of the things I cannot change …” So, if by being in SP mode you are saying you are being passive or apathetic about your life and your future, I have to ask you to reconsider.


      1. Yes, that is a fine line one can tread on there, isn’t it? Easy to fall into traps sometimes also. I like your edit to the SP. I think I am just coasting, day by day, more in the moment than in strategic planning mode. There is always a lot to consider. I am also dealing with physical limitations at the current time which are not insurmountable – I have conquered those before – but are hurdles to where I want to go next. And I am not even sure where ‘next’ is yet.

        Studying my options. I am also very tuned into astrological influences/timings and follow my instincts with that and other factors in consideration. I know a lot of people consider astrology witchcraft and craziness but after following it for a couple of decades now I don’t consider it all superstition. But I use it like a weather forecast. A lot of astrology, at least the more intelligent study of it, involves timing. Timing is often very important.


    2. WP won’t let me Reply to your May 1 Reply, so I’ll do it here instead.

      I don’t see anything wrong with coasting. That’s what Walkabout is all about, isn’t it? Wandering and wondering, seeing what there is to see, living in the moment, all without feeling the need to “fix” or “improve” any of it. Some belief systems call that enlightenment or the quest for enlightenment. Maybe you are recharging to get ready for whatever is next?


      1. Yes, and that is what we are on here according to your last entry, a mental Walkabout. And physical walkabouts and virtual ones. Like touring the Palouse with you. Which was fun. I am time traveling with my Flickr photo books which has been fun also. I could be recharging. There is a lot of that in the stars now also. Forward movement might happen later this month. Also, one of my astrologer friends who knows my chart well has advised to do just that, coast, until later in July. I sense it also.


  4. Briar, I’m guilty as charged! I’ve been the “boss” in the flowchart above many times. During my younger, more idealistic days, I tried to give everyone the benefit of a doubt, and let them do their work without me hovering over them. Although many appreciated the freedom, and did well, several took advantage of my good nature, and work suffered for it. Today, even though I’m no longer in a true supervisory role, I’ve learned to “verify, verify, verify”, a new coworker until I can trust them.

    I guess what I’m getting at is the flowcharts are overly simplistic; people are different, and some will be affected by you more than others.

    As for aging, Juslivn has a good post on being a Crone(not that I’m calling you one, lol).


    1. At various times I’ve been the boss, too, Wiley, and the flunky. There is no one size fits all for either role. Then, too, it depends on the type of hovering. A brain surgeon in training should be closely watched by her supervisor; a ditch digger just needs to git ‘er done without cutting into utility cables.

      I do think you’re giving your own self-fulfilling prophecy a little rework lately, what with exercising your creative muse by writing. You’ll only get better.


  5. Micromanaging the worst!!! I think that people who do that are not confident people. It is a style of managing that is created by the manager not the people he/she manages. Just my opinion!

    On aging, I really never think of my age. Or what I should be doing at my ‘age’ or not. I also don’t look back at my life and say, if I should have done that or didn’t do that, or hadn’t married that, LOL! What has happened has happened, don’t live in the past, learn from it, yes, but don’t live in it!! I have seen it cause so much anger in older people, they just can’t let go.

    Also having a lot of interests, that keeps you young both physically and mentally.

    You create your life, not someone else! Not your job, your kids, your spouse, the government, the neighbors, just you!

    I hope you went out yesterday to see the Sandhills!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Spoken like a woman who knows herself and takes responsibility for herself! Way to go, Calpoppy! How well I recall that my mother started wearing her hair “up” when she turned 30. It wasn’t until she turned 60 that she got smart and realized she could wear her hair down any time she felt like it. You seem to have a very positive, healthy self-fulfilling prophecy going for you. Don’t ever let that go.

    Unfortunately, no sandhills once again. But I had a great time and did “shoot” a Great Egret out of its usual territory and a Black-Billed Magpie. I’ll blog about it as soon as I get a chance. Too much mowing and weeding to do while the sun shines. For now, you can see my photos at


  7. I just watched 60 minutes and the topic was on aging and longevity. Fascinating episode. From the comments here and from the segment on aging, I see that I need to have a more positive outlook (as I used to), drink a little wine (darn it, I am a teetotaler), go back to my dancing, play in bed, basically stay active in mind and body. And have a positive outlook. I agree with calpoppy, it is best to leave the past in the past. Yet, certain things cannot and will not leave our minds and hearts… Knowing what we need to do to remain viable in our old age and actually following through are two different things, this is the lesson that I have learned.

    Stephen Hawkings is one of the human beings that I absolutely respect. A brave, courageous, man. His incredible mind and his will to live without any limitations despite his disability is an incredible feat. I wish that I had one iota of his resolve and intelligence!

    A thought provoking post.


    1. I watched that same program. It had some new and interesting information, but it also confirmed what I have been reading. Positive attitude, active mind, and active body are key to so much. They are important throughout our lifetimes, but most especially as we get older. If you think and act old, you will soon be old.

      In addition to the perks of dancing and wine and coffee, it was something else to hear that the oldest old should be overweight (not obese) and even high blood pressure can help stave off Alzheimers. It is a new science, but taking joy in all aspects of life is the best, most important thing any of us can do.

      Maria, those certain things must, at some point, be put to rest. Learn what you can from those experiences, use logic to argue away any feelings of guilt. Learn to live in the moment and give your husband the greatest gift ever. Life is too short and too precious to waste it on the past or on depression or apathy or any other such negatives. Even if you don’t feel that you are worth the effort, surely your husband and family are worth some effort. Aren’t they?


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