The Self Fulfilling Prophecy
At moments in our life where we expect failure in an endeavor, but try anyway, sometimes that attempt is shockingly successful. A simple illustration of this is what most personal records in the gym are like. From how the lift starts, you do not think you have any chance of moving that weight. Then, you put everything into it just to know you tried. It feels like it will not move an inch. In a split second, you get a good lift. How many of your previous failed attempts at this personal record were only failures because you did not do everything you could? You know underestimating yourself will lead to a self fulfilling prophecy. And yet, you seem to consistently undermine your efforts with creeping doubt. What are some reasons for chronically underestimating yourself?
We will be discussing:
- Immune Neglect
- External Locus of Control
- Stereotype Threat
- Learned Helplessness
- Self Handicapping
The concept of immune neglect is predicated on an allegory comparing our psychological defenses against negative emotions to the body’s physical immune system. Everyone has coping skills of varying efficacy to deal with negative emotions, but when we are trying to predict our future moods (affective forecasting) for some reason humans will consistently underestimate those skills. This can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy. You expect to crumble under the stress of your new job, so you do not bother to exercise your extensive stress management techniques and so the job was just too much for you to handle in the end… exactly as you predicted. This human tendency is deceptively dangerous because we base our decisions on our predictions of the future. You plant a seed today to harvest fruit much later. If our affective forecasting is all doom and gloom, that can lead to hopelessness which is arguably the least useful emotion. If you did not believe your tomato seeds could ever survive the conditions outside, you would never bother planting them. If you predict you will not be able to deal with your negative emotions, there are endless ways you could end up accidentally holding yourself back. Just like the tomato seeds that adapted to survive in their environment, you have skills to survive your’s. Take inventory of your (healthy) coping skills every once in a while. Develop a realistic view of what you can handle and not only will the future look brighter, but your decisions today will be more likely to guide you to that radiant image of the future you envisioned. But, there are more ways to rope yourself into a self fulfilling prophecy.
One human behavior that can lead you into those self fulfilling prophecies is self handicapping. This is when you intentionally put obstacles in the way of success, like only ever studying for a test the night before the exam. The useful function of self handicapping is to protect your self- esteem from damage. If you fail a test this way, all you have to do to protect your self- esteem is say, “Of course I failed, I barely studied. If I really tried I would have passed”. But, on the topic of underestimating one's self, too much self handicapping is a sign that you do not believe in your abilities. So much so that you prepare for failure before you even get started on a challenge. A quick fix to this that I learned in social psychology is to not handicap yourself during the challenging task, but retroactively assign blame to some obstacle. If you study everyday for a week and still fail the test, it is because you were distracted by other students.
External Locus of Control
That example ties into our next topic, which is possessing an external locus of control. This simply means the belief that control of your life is mostly held by sources outside yourself. This has a significant effect on outcomes and mood. An individual with an external locus of control underestimates their ability to effect positive change in their life. A good real world example is the Incel internet subculture. Incels believe that their inability to find romantic partners was decided at birth because they were born ugly. These incels do not approach women or work on developing things they could bring to a relationship. So of course they will always be single. They underestimate how much their personal actions could improve their life.
There is one incredibly negative side effect of an external locus of control. That is learned helplessness, or the inability to take opportunities to escape a situation because one is too used to repeated failure. The person suffering from this has learned that they cannot control a specific outcome and develop a kind of blindness to opportunity. The experiment where this effect was first described involved electrocuting many many dogs while they tried to escape, but they had no way to get away from the shock. After doing this for a while, you can give a dog an obvious escape route, but they will no longer even attempt to avoid the shock. Do you have any shocks you could escape in your life if you took advantage of opportunities? If so, you are underestimating your ability to help yourself.
Stereotype threat is the easiest concept here to understand and most people have experienced it. If you are aware of a negative stereotype belonging to a group you are a member of, you will predict you will adhere to that stereotype and underestimate your ability to defy it. Stereotype threat affects individuals whether they believe the stereotype themselves or not. Ways to solve this are still being developed. One of the most interesting studies I have seen is one demonstrating the effect: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1368430213490212?journalCode=gpia
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.