If you haven’t yet got yourself a copy of Achieving our Full Potential (New Voices Publishing ISBN-13:978-1-920094-69-0), I suggest you rush out and get it. Written by South African psychologist and executive coach, Dr Richard Oxtoby , it offers easy to understand and no-nonsense psychology concepts to adopt in a personal change program. One of the chapters I really enjoy is called Awareness of the reality of the self-fulfilling prophecy where Dr Oxtoby sheds some credibility on this sometimes out-there concept.
American Professor of Sociology, Robert Merton developed the idea of the ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy in 1957. The essence of the philosophy is that if we believe things are going to happen in a certain way it greatly increases the chances that they will. Much work has been done on this topic by the American experimental social psychologist Robert Rosenthal.
In his book, Oxtoby tells of an experiment performed by Rosenthal in which he told a group of students that he had developed a new strain of “super-intelligent” rats and invited them to participate in an experiment to test the maze-running abilities of the new creatures. In fact there were no special strain of rats at all. All the students were given animals of exactly the same type and all tested the learning abilities of the animals they had been given in identical mazes. The only difference were that half the students, when they were given their animals to test, were told that they were one of the new strain of ‘super-intelligent”, “maze-bright” rats, and the other half were told that they were testing “maze-dull” animals. Remarkably, although there were no differences in the overall learning abilities of the two groups of animals before the experiment started, those rats that were tested by those who believed their animals had superior abilities did indeed outperform those whose handlers believed they were of below average ability.
Oxtoby also illustrates how this concept plays out in the medical field in the Placebo and Nocebo effects. Doctors have long been aware that a patient’s belief as to the efficacy of the treatment they are given is sometimes more important than the actual content of the treatment they are given. In experiments were patients have been given pills that contain nothing but sugar but are told that the sugar pills will produce certain positive results, they have. It is concluded that in some cases the self-fulfilling prophecy is probably as powerful a factor affecting the outcome of the treatment as the biochemistry of the drug used.
Why are our expectations so powerful in shaping our behaviour? Why is it that if we expect trouble we most often find it? Why is it that if we expect a business meeting we are running to be a positive experience for all concerned it is much likely to be so than if we go into it expecting disaster? Why is it that when we expect a new acquaintance to find us interesting and desirable company they often do, whilst if we went into that first meeting expecting to be disliked or thought poorly of, that is so often what happens? Oxtoby purports that when we expect to meet difficulties we prepare ourselves by putting on the defensive armour we have got so used to using in difficult situations in the past, and so we start to behave as though the negative situation we fear is already upon us. When we believe that something good is going to happen, we start to behave as though it has already done so, and the battle for success is already more than half won.
Sports coaches already use this practical lesson, encouraging their athletes to visualise positive outcomes and positive expectations in their endeavours. Positive self-belief is a very important component of the toolkit of life-skills that happy and successful people carry around with them. Oxtoby writes, ‘It is a sobering thought that while psychologists seem to have only recently started to take the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy seriously, more than 2000 years ago the ancient Roman poet Virgil wrote, “They are able because they think they are able”.
But Oxtboy also cautions, ’Of course one does need to be realistic about the fact that having positive expectations does not guarantee success. It only greatly increases our chance of achieving it. You still need a Plan and a Plan B if necessary. But be warned, to expect failure is one of the surest ways of ensuring that that is just what we do experience.’ Instead, use repeated positive affirmations to help yourself to believe in the beauty of your positive dreams, and they may indeed come true.