Dec 172008

Do you know what a self-fulfilling prophesy is? It’s a prediction that somehow causes itself to come into being, usually by the knowledge of it. Here’s an example from wiki: “The 1973 oil crisis resulted in the so-called “toilet paper panic.” The rumour of an expected shortage in toilet paper—resulting from a decline in the importation of oil—led to people stockpiling supplies of toilet paper. This caused a shortage, which seemed to validate the rumour.”

In this post I’m going to:

  • give some examples of self-fulfilling prophesies
  • relate them to the field of personal development and beliefs in general
  • discuss how we come up with beliefs about the world and why this is pretty much useless
  • try to come up with a better way of choosing beliefs from Steve Pavlina

Quirkology, a fascinating book on various aspects of the human psyche, talks about the role of self-fulfilling prophesies in our daily lives. “For example a person who expects people to be friendly, may smile more and thus receive more smiles, while a person expecting to be lucky, may enter many more competitions and thus increase their chances of winning.” Bam. This is where personal development (PD) work meets psychology. PD has long recognized the roles of beliefs as not just observations, but as self-fulfilling prophesies.

We tend to imagine ourselves a bit like scientists: we know the “truth” about the world and we simply observe that “truth”, not create it. For example, if I believe other people are just out take advantage of me and the only people I can trust are my family, this belief could have come from my personal experience with others. It could also have been inherited from my family.

Except this is not a scientific observation, such as gravity, in that can’t be affected by the belief I hold. For example, if I do not believe in gravity, it still binds me and my belief does not change it. But if I believe other people are shifty and untrustworthy, I may treat them in a way to suggests to them that they’re untrustworthy, and they’ll act in an untrustworthy way. If I inherited this belief from my family, they may have done the same thing to arrive at this conclusion. And I’ll have plenty of evidence to support this belief using confirmation bias (the human tendancy to seek information that confirms your conclusions or beliefs, not look for “objective” data) or selection bias (ignoring the times when people were trustworthy and instead focusing on when they were untrustworthy). If you feel that you are immune to these biases, I would suggest you reconsider. I have known about these and many other biases for years now and it is a constant battle to fight these for the simple fact that I am a human being and these are pretty much built in. Of course, you could know more than me or better than me, or are simply better than human ;-). These biases do not mean that we’re somehow “imperfect”, there’s good reasons for a number of these biases, usually that as human beings, we’re finite creatures and these biases are a result of that finitary predicament, such as having limited processing power or time. If you’re interested in learning about other biases, I would suggest Quirkology and Influence by Cialdini (one of my favourite books of all time).

We’re learning mechanisms and for the sake of our psychological health we have to attempt to distill some beliefs or theorems about how the world is so we can work within it. However, as I’ve suggested enough, determining how accurately a belief models the world is difficult, because we could have gotten that belief through means that are biased, and if we already have a belief, we can get all the evidence in the world to support it that we want. So, what do you do?

Steve Pavlina suggests that we try out various beliefs. Living with a particular belief gives you a specific experience that looking from the outside in doesn’t, because you’re always looking out from within your current belief. For example, from my recent perspective, when someone says, “making money is easy: you just create and deliver value”, I have to admit I look at them like they’re crazy. However, I’m starting to adopt this belief and trying it out for a while to see how it fits and its becoming more true. Steve Pavlina, then, offers a number of criteria to measure a belief by.

The actual process of belief change usually occurs within the context of a goal you’ve set. For example, if I have a goal to get straight A’s, a belief which says, “I will need to put in 20 hours a week of studying to get that A” is not as effective as, “I can get As while putting in less than an hour a week of studying.” The second belief not only makes achieving this goal easier, but it also encourages me to seek out new ways to fulfill this belief, such as this article from Study Hacks called “The Art of Stealth Studying: How to Earn a 4.0 With Only 1.0 Hours of Work“. I could also find ways to dramatically improve my studying ability. Do you see how this self-fulfilling prophesy is a positive one that can really help me achieve my goals and improve myself? Do you also see that either of the above two beliefs are as “true” as each other, and while I hold one, its “true” and while I hold the other, its also “true”?

I’ve written about the actual specific process of belief change in an article called “Improving Self-Awareness to Achieve Your Goals“.

Finally, this applies at beliefs of all levels of analysis about your life. If you believe life is hard and difficult and everybody is out to get you, it will be so. If you believe life is easy and meant to be enjoyed, it will be so. A common metaphor for beliefs are “lenses” and I think its a powerful one. If you’ve gone to get your eyes checked, the optometrist will put a few different lenses in front of your eyes and ask you which gives you the clearest vision. Think of beliefs as trying out various glasses until you find ones that work well for you.

  2 Responses to “Self-Fulfilling Prophesies & How Your Life Happens”

  1. […] you sure that’s not a self-fulfilling prophesy? You also seem to assuming that just because "everyone" can’t just run their own […]

  2. Great post!
    I like how you are using everyday knowledge and using it to make sense of something that is usually ignored.

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