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SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 1
Arthur A. Stukas Mark Snyder
La Trobe University University of Minnesota
Stukas, A. A., & Snyder, M. (2016). Self-fulfilling prophecies. In H. S. Friedman (Ed),
Encyclopedia of mental health (2nd edition, Vol. 4, pp. 92-100). San Diego, CA:
Arthur A. Stukas, School of Psychological Science, La Trobe University, Bundoora, VIC
3086 AUSTRALIA; 61-3-9479-1515; fax 61-3-9479-1956; firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Snyder, Psychology Department, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, 75 East River
Road, Minneapolis, MN 55455; 612-625-1507; email@example.com
13 September 2013
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 2
Behavioral confirmation: A phenomenon of social interaction in which one person (the
"target") comes to confirm, through their actions, the expectations that another person
(the "perceiver") holds for them because of the treatment that they receive from that
person (see also, self-fulfilling prophecy).
Behavioral disconfirmation: A phenomenon of social interaction in which one person (the
"target") comes to disconfirm, through their actions, the expectations that another person
(the "perceiver") holds for them.
Expectation: A belief or preconception about the ways in which another person will behave in
Perceiver: Any person who holds beliefs about another person in social interaction.
Perceptual confirmation: A phenomenon of social interaction in which one person (the
"perceiver") comes to feel that his or her beliefs about another person (the "target") have
been confirmed during their interaction with that person.
Self-fulfilling prophecy: A term used to describe any situation in which the initial beliefs of
one person about another lead them to act in such a way that the other person is lead to
confirm those initial beliefs with their behavior.
Target: Any person about whom another person holds beliefs in social interaction.
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 3
People typically enter their social interactions with preconceived beliefs and expectations
about how other people will act and they often use these beliefs as guides for their own
actions with these others. These actions, in turn, may prompt their interaction partners to
behave in ways that confirm the initial beliefs. This phenomenon, in which belief creates
reality, has been demonstrated for a wide variety of expectations. In this article, we review
the extensive research literature, identifying the moderators and mediators that explain when
and why self-fulfilling prophecies occur, as well as the practical and theoretical implications
of these effects. (99 words)
KEYWORDS: self-fulfilling prophecy; stereotypes; stigma; expectations; self-perceptions;
social interaction; therapy; power; motivation; beliefs; confirmation
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 4
When two people come together in social interaction, it is very likely that they hold
expectations about one another's behavior. These expectations may anticipate behaviors
based on each other's appearances, personalities, attitudes, preferences, skills and abilities,
goals, mood states, or a host of other salient features. Although beliefs about how a person
will act can come from past experiences with the person, they may also arise from stereotypes
related to the social categories to which a person belongs, such as those related to age,
ethnicity, gender, and occupation, among many other categories. Once activated, these
expectations may influence how people choose to act with each other. Such behavioral
choices may consequently influence the other person's behavior in turn. For example, if we
hold an expectation that a person is smart, even erroneously, we may choose conversational
topics that allow them to talk about intellectual things, giving them a chance to demonstrate
intelligence. Whereas, if we think a person is less smart, we might guide the conversation
toward less sophisticated topics, thereby gathering only evidence that the person can talk
about undemanding things. When beliefs influence, or dictate, how another person acts such
that the person comes to confirm the initial beliefs of their interaction partner with their
behavior, we say that a self-fulfilling prophecy has occurred (for reviews, please see Klein &
Snyder, 2003; Madon, Willard, Guyll, & Scherr, 2011; Snyder & Stukas, 1999) .
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Defined
Merton (1948) is usually credited with having coined the term "self-fulfilling
prophecy" to refer to situations in which false beliefs about the possibility of certain
outcomes lead people to engage in new behaviors that actually make these otherwise unlikely
outcomes more likely. His examples included Depression-era rumors of bank insolvency
leading to mass withdrawals and actual insolvency, suggestions of approaching war leading
to arms stockpiling, defensiveness and then hostilities, and accusations of strikebreaking by
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 5
blacks leading to their exclusion from unions (and many jobs) and therefore increased
activity as strikebreakers. This sociological focus on mass behavior leading to societal
outcomes is grounded in a psychological foundation: a false "definition of the situation" (a
subjective and psychological perception) that generates expectations of outcomes which in
turn guide specific behaviors that then influence the course of events. As such, this
conceptualization was easily transferred to the realm of everyday social interaction and the
role of interpersonal stereotypes and expectations in guiding specific social exchanges.
A Standard Research Paradigm
To study the effects of erroneous beliefs about another person on their social
behavior, a standard paradigm for examining the self-fulfilling prophecy in social interaction
has come to be used. In the typical investigation, a "perceiver" is provided with a randomly
assigned expectation about a "target" and the two parties then engage in a "getting
acquainted" conversation, with measures of the perceiver's subjective perceptions of the
target post-interaction and objective ratings of the behaviors of the target serving as
outcomes. To investigate the types of expectations and stereotypes for which effects might
occur, as well as to uncover the underlying mechanisms by which these expectations have
their effects on targets' behaviors, the experimental method was adopted for its ability to
allow researchers to systematically examine potential causal effects of manipulated
independent variables on reliably assessed dependent variables.
Perceivers have been assigned to receive information designed to influence their
expectations in a variety of forms, by picture as well as by demographic, attitudinal, or
personality profiles provided in advance of their social interactions with targets who rarely
receive much information about perceivers, thus leaving them unaware of the expectations
that perceivers hold of them. In the standard paradigm, perceivers and targets typically do not
meet face-to-face, to prevent pictures that are often used to arouse expectations from being
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 6
exposed as not actually being of the target, but also to avoid other naturally occurring
expectations from being activated by other features of targets related to their physical
appearance. This typically means that expectations manipulated in experimental studies are
likely to be unrelated to the real characteristics of targets, a situation that may replicate the
most inaccurate of stereotypes but does not fully represent the more complex array of
accurate and inaccurate information available to perceivers about targets in ordinary social
Generally, in studies of the effects of expectations on social interaction, perceivers
and targets are instructed simply to get acquainted, as they might on the telephone, for a
period of 10 to 15 minutes, but some studies have involved more focused tasks, such as mock
interviews or counselling sessions. At the conclusion of their interaction, both perceivers and
targets complete measures focused on their perceptions of their own behavior and that of their
partners; these impressions allow researchers to examine a) whether perceivers demonstrated
perceptual confirmation of their assigned expectations, seeing what they expected to see; and
b) whether targets demonstrated any change in their self-perceptions. In addition, two or
more independent raters code recordings of the interactions, listening only to targets' side of
the conversation to avoid any influence of perceivers' questions or directions (that might
convey the expectation to raters), to determine whether targets provided behavioral
confirmation of the perceivers' expectations. This behavioral evidence is seen as more
conclusive support for the presence of self-fulfilling effects, given the well known subjective
biases held by perceivers who may more easily perceive confirmation even in ambiguous
behaviors, a not uninteresting effect in itself. Using raters who are blind to condition and to
hypotheses allows researchers to overcome this problem.
Behavioral Confirmation in Social Interaction
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 7
Snyder, Tanke, and Berscheid (1977) conducted an early study that contains all of the
elements of this standard paradigm. In this study, male perceivers were randomly assigned to
receive a photograph, previously rated as physically attractive or unattractive, of a female
target. These pictures were expected to activate stereotypes related to attractiveness (i.e.,
what is beautiful is good) and associated expectations of warm and sociable behavior by
attractive women and cold and awkward behavior by unattractive women. Each man then
engaged in a brief conversation (audio-only) with another participant who they were told was
the woman in the picture; however, this was not the case and their conversation partner was
another research participant paired by random assignment. These conversations were
recorded and later coded by objective raters, blind to hypotheses and experimental condition.
Male perceivers also provided their post-interaction impressions of the targets' behavior.
Results of the independent judgments of the objective raters demonstrated that the
conversational behavior of female targets (examined without access to the male perceivers'
voice) was significantly different depending upon whether their partners had seen an
attractive or an unattractive picture. Women paired with an attractive picture acted more
sociably than women paired with an unattractive picture. The impressions of the male
perceivers were consistent with the raters' judgments: they drew conclusions about their
partners that were congruent with stereotypes about attractive and unattractive people, in line
with the pictures they had received.
Confirmation Processes in Applied Settings
In addition to research investigating the effects of interpersonal expectations in dyadic
social interactions in laboratory experiments, a number of related studies have examined self-
fulfilling effects of beliefs in applied contexts. For example, Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968)
provided teachers with information that suggested that a randomly assigned subset of students
in their class were "late bloomers" and would increase in academic ability over the course of
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 8
the coming school year. As compared to students for whom no new expectations were
provided, these students for whom teachers held positive expectations actually did
demonstrate improvements in performance. This outcome is often termed the "Pygmalion"
effect (after the George Bernard Shaw play) because of its revelation of the potential ability
of perceivers' treatment to transform targets in a positive way. Although the gains by students
in the original study were not sustained in subsequent years, Rosenthal and his colleagues
have used additional experimental studies to more clearly isolate those behaviors of teachers
most responsible for the effects (see Rosenthal, 2002, for a review).
Rosenthal also investigated the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecies in scientific
investigations themselves (again, see Rosenthal, 2002). In a series of important studies, he
examined whether awareness of a study's hypotheses and, more specifically, awareness of the
experimental conditions to which participants have been assigned, can lead experimenters to
unintentionally influence these participants to provide responses that support the hypotheses.
Inspired by Pfungst's demonstration that Clever Hans, a horse purported to be able to count,
was actually being influenced by his owner's unintentional nonverbal behavior, Rosenthal
and Fode (1963) assigned graduate students to expect that certain rats were bred to be bright
at navigating mazes and that others were bred to be dull at this task. Over the course of the
training period, the students managed to influence the maze-bright and maze-dull rats to
become significantly different in their maze performance, despite the fact that the rats
originally came from the same genetic strain and were randomly assigned to their labels. This
study and other similar studies helped to lead to the current scientific practice of keeping both
experimenters and participants blind to the condition of the study to which they are assigned
as a safeguard against confirmatory influences.
Given the significance of the self-fulfilling prophecy as a means by which social
stigma and negative stereotypes may have their deleterious effects on the treatment and
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 9
consequent behavior of targets, other applied studies also have sought to examine whether
such expectations could also be self-fulfilling. For example, Farina and Ring (1965) assigned
perceivers to play a cooperative game requiring manual skill with targets who they were told
had a diagnosed mental illness or not. Perceivers reported more negative perceptions of their
partners' behaviors but surprisingly led their partners to a better joint result than participants
in the control condition (possibly through overcompensation). Farina and his colleagues (e.g.,
Farina, Allen, & Saul, 1968) subsequently investigated both the stigmatising beliefs of
perceivers and the behaviors of targets who thought that they had been labelled with a mental
illness, as contributors to problems in interpersonal interactions. In another study with
societal implications, Word, Zanna, and Cooper (1974) examined the nonverbal behaviors of
white perceivers interviewing black job candidates and subsequently trained new interviewers
to use this style with randomly assigned white participants (as compared to a control group).
White participants interviewed with the style previously used for black candidates, which
involved less immediacy, more speech errors, and a shorter interview time, performed worse
in the interviews.
Confirmation of Expectations in a Wide Array of Domains
Over the course of several decades of research on the effects of beliefs about other
people in ongoing social interaction, a vast array of expectations has been examined for their
self-fulfilling influences (see Klein & Snyder, 2003; Madon et al., 2011; Snyder & Stukas,
1999, for reviews). Thus, there have been demonstrations of the behavioral confirmation and
perceptual confirmation of stereotypes about the typical personalities of women and men,
assumptions about racial differences, beliefs about age differences, self images, anticipations
of the likely personalities of other people, expectations of being liked or disliked, imputations
of stigmatizing conditions to other people, mothers’ stereotyped expectations about infants,
and arbitrary designations of differences in ability and performance competence. The wide
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 10
variety of these expectations attests to the generality of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-
fulfilling effects seem possible whenever a perceiver holds an expectation about a target,
whether it is positive or negative, important or less important.
The research literature also contains evidence that perceivers' expectations have been
confirmed in targets' behavior in a variety of domains. In addition to studies of confirmation
processes in social interaction, research has demonstrated the influence of initial expectations
in classrooms, workplaces, therapists' offices, and more recently, within the family. Indeed,
some recent studies of naturally occurring (rather than randomly assigned) expectations, such
as those of Madon and colleagues that have examined parents' expectations about their
children's academic ability or alcohol consumption, have demonstrated that self-fulfilling
effects can and do occur above and beyond the influences of other well-known predictors of
behavior (e.g., Madon et al., 2011). In this way, the potential accuracy of some expectations
has been controlled for, thereby maintaining a focus on the self-fulfilling effects of erroneous
expectations that are the most likely to be problematic. Nevertheless, in some of these
studies, positive expectations have been shown to have stronger effects than negative
expectations (e.g., Madon, Guyll, Spoth, Cross, & Hilbert, 2003), which stands in contrast to
the predominant focus on the effects of stigmatizing beliefs in much of the literature.
Mechanisms and Mediators
In addition to demonstrating the existence of the self-fulfilling prophecy, researchers
also have turned their attention to understanding how and why confirmation occurs. These
questions focus on the mediating processes that may be necessary for perceivers' expectations
to be confirmed in targets' actual behaviors. Four steps in the self-fulfilling prophecy
sequence have been outlined (for example, by Snyder & Stukas, 1999): 1) perceivers adopt
beliefs about targets; 2) perceivers act as if these beliefs were true and treat targets
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 11
accordingly; 3) targets assimilate their behavior to perceivers’ overtures; and 4) perceivers
interpret targets’ behavior as confirming their beliefs.
From whence do perceivers' beliefs originate? Many studies use randomly assigned
and experimentally manipulated expectations to test the effects of expectations. Yet, as much
as such procedures afford precise and systematic tests of the causal influences of
expectations, they also tend to side step the question of the origins of expectations, when they
aren’t being provided by experimental manipulations controlled by researchers. However,
there is a rich literature on stereotypes and those who hold them, suggesting that certain
beliefs about certain targets are chronically held and become salient in social interactions
with these targets. Other expectations may be cued and/or given license by the context, the
environmental setting surrounding the interaction or the situational purpose for interacting
(see Snyder & Stukas, 2007, for an expanded discussion). For example, settings may serve to
activate certain expectations (and not others), and to determine which expectations are
relevant and important. A swimming pool may call attention to a target’s physical appearance
(and stereotypes about the personalities associated with appearance) whereas an academic
conference may make the target’s intellectual abilities more prominent. Situations can place
people into roles and make their group memberships salient. For example, in any given
interaction, by virtue of their achieved or ascribed roles and group memberships, people may
find themselves acting as perceivers or being subjected to a perceiver's treatment as a target.
Although certain situations, such as a therapeutic session or job interview make roles (and the
balance of power) crystal clear, other situations may involve a negotiation of identities and
expectations with interactants vying to determine which expectations are to be employed
(e.g., Swann, 2012). Perceivers' expectations may enter their conscious awareness or they
may have their effects more unconsciously outside of awareness; research suggests that both
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 12
explicit beliefs and attitudes and implicit beliefs and attitudes can guide attention selectively
and influence how targets are seen and treated (e.g., Chen & Bargh, 1997).
Many researchers have focused on the second step in the sequence, investigating how
perceivers act on their expectations. For example, Snyder and Swann (1978) proposed that
perceivers might test hypotheses about the likely personalities of targets by choosing to ask
biased questions that lead targets to respond in a way that confirms the initial hypotheses. For
example, a target believed to be extraverted might be asked questions about parties and social
events rather than about more introspective behaviors. Although subsequent research has
suggested that perceivers might use more diagnostic or open questions spontaneously (which
allow for targets to disconfirm expectations), it appears that once they feel certain that targets
have provided confirmatory evidence, they may ask more biased questions (see Leyens,
Dardennes, Yzerbyt, Scaillet, & Snyder, 1999, for a review). Recent research suggests that
perceivers who are in positive moods are also more likely to select questions that match
targets' expected characteristics than targets who are in sad moods, with the effect holding
across both diagnostic and more biased questions (e.g., Dardennes, Dumont, Gregoire, &
In the educational arena, Rosenthal and his colleagues (e.g., Harris & Rosenthal,
1985) have investigated the expectation-based behaviors of teachers that may influence the
achievement of students (using meta-analysis to examine 31 different possibilities). Four
classes of behaviors seem mostly likely to create the effects produced. Specifically, teachers
may construct a distinct socio-emotional climate (i.e., warm or cold), utilize or fail to utilize
positive feedback, provide greater or lesser opportunity in terms of the amount and difficulty
of the material presented, and provide greater or fewer chances for student response and
interaction. Teachers have been shown to modify these behaviors depending upon the
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 13
expectations they hold about students' potential and, in this way, they may guide and impact
students' responses and opportunities to learn. Rosenthal (2002) has pointed out that the
climate created and amount of material presented by teachers may have the strongest effects
on students’ behavior.
Depending upon the nature of the interaction at hand, different behaviors by
perceivers may be responsible for eliciting confirmatory behavior from targets. In the case of
negative and stigmatizing expectations, for example, Klein and Snyder (2003) have suggested
that perceivers may treat targets differently depending upon whether the social interaction is
task-focused or a more casual conversation to get acquainted. In task-focused interactions,
when perceivers hold negative expectations about their partners (particularly about their
partners' competence and abilities), they may attempt to dominate the other person following
an assumption that this would enable better joint task performance. However, the end result is
likely to be less opportunity for targets to demonstrate proficiency or to overcome the initial
negative expectations. Similarly, in getting acquainted interactions where forming
impressions is the focus, perceivers with negative expectations (particularly about their
partners' sociability and warmth) may prefer to limit their contact with targets, following a
strategy of avoidance that again may give targets little opportunity to demonstrate their social
skills to disconfirm the expectations. Some studies also suggest that perceivers' cold and
avoidant treatment might be automatically elicited simply by categorization of targets
expected to act negatively (e.g., Chen & Bargh, 1997).
How do targets respond to such treatment? Research focused on the third step in the
sequence has suggested that targets often respond reciprocally to perceivers' cold, distant, and
avoidant treatment but may respond submissively to dominant behavior (e.g., Klein &
Snyder, 2003). Such behaviors would serve to confirm negative expectations in the eyes of
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 14
perceivers (perceptual confirmation) and very likely in the eyes of any onlookers, such as
objective raters involved in experimental studies (behavioral confirmation). Of course, in
many or most experimental studies, targets are unaware of the expectations held about them
and very often these expectations do not fit with targets' real social categories (i.e., pictures
and personality information are randomly assigned). For this reason, targets may not attempt
to disconfirm erroneous expectations held about them because they are unsuspecting (e.g.,
Snyder & Klein, 2005).
In more naturalistic interactions, however, targets may be only too aware of the
possible expectations held about them by perceivers, particularly when these reflect well-
known social stereotypes and stigmatizing beliefs. Swann's (2012) review of work on self-
verification theory suggests that targets often prefer to be seen by others as they see
themselves, particularly when these self-perceptions are certain and important. Targets may
be less likely to provide behavioral confirmation of perceivers' expectations, and may even
provide active disconfirmation, when their own self-beliefs are strong and salient and
opposed to the perceivers' expectations. Studies that have made targets aware of perceivers'
erroneous negative expectations for them have demonstrated that targets can and do work to
disconfirm these expectations (e.g., Hilton & Darly, 1985), particularly when they are seen as
dispositional judgments rather than attributed to an unusual or uncomfortable situation (e.g.,
Stukas & Snyder, 2002). However, in natural settings, stigmatized targets, particularly, may
find themselves with less power to confront perceivers and it may be easier to adopt a cold or
aloof stance, potentially confirming expectations. Related work on stereotype threat suggests
that awareness that one is the target of negative expectations can influence working memory
capacity and thereby impact performance (e.g., Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008).
Effects on Subsequent Beliefs
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 15
Turning to the fourth and final step in the sequence that has been outlined, most
studies that investigate the effects of perceivers' expectations report significant perceptual
confirmation effects, with perceivers coming to believe that they have seen targets confirm
their expectations, even in those cases when behavioral confirmation effects are not
statistically significant. Indeed, there are good reasons to posit that perceivers will not change
their views even if targets overtly disconfirm their expectations, as Snyder and Klein (2005)
point out. For example, tendencies to interpret ambiguous behaviors in line with pre-existing
beliefs and selective attention to confirming information support continuity in expectations.
Consequently, both perceivers and targets may end interactions believing that they saw what
they had expected to see, either confirmation of expectations or support for self-views (see
Snyder & Stukas, 1999). Nevertheless, in line with self-verification theory and the idea that
any social interaction involves a negotiation of identities, a number of studies suggest that
targets' strongly held self-views may influence perceivers to change their expectations when
these beliefs conflict, particularly when perceivers are less confident in their expectations
(see Swann, 2012, for a review). However, even if behavioural disconfirmation is noticed by
perceivers, stereotypes have been shown to persist when individual exceptions are "sub-
typed" and seen as atypical of the larger social category to which they belong (see Snyder &
Klein, 2005, for further discussion of this point).
Change in targets' self-views as a result of their behavioral confirmation of perceivers'
erroneous expectations is theoretically possible, following from self-perception theory's
proposition that we often develop our self-views from observing our own behavior (see Bem,
1972), but few studies have demonstrated this effect. A handful of experimental studies have
demonstrated that targets may continue to act in line with a perceiver's expectations in
subsequent interactions, even with other people (see Snyder & Klein, 2005, for a discussion),
although this is not necessarily mediated by a change in self-views. Quite possibly, the lack
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 16
of impact on targets' self-views is primarily due to the brevity of the social interactions that
have been studied, with ongoing longitudinal studies that pair strangers (one of whom holds a
randomly assigned expectation) rare and potentially unethical. In naturalistic studies where
perceivers' initial expectations and targets' self-views are measured rather than manipulated,
such as in McNulty and Swann's (1994) study of college roommates over the course of an
academic year, results suggest that both perceivers' expectations and targets' self-views may
change, gravitating toward the other person's views. Madon's studies of parental expectations
for their children also suggest that the child's self-views may come to reflect the parent's
expectations and that this is responsible for changes in their behavior (see Madon et al.,
2011). These changes in targets' self-views may be more likely when there are ongoing
relations with perceivers who hold stable and sustained beliefs and when multiple perceivers
hold similar beliefs about a target; as Madon et al. (2011) report, negative beliefs may also be
particularly likely to have synergistic effects on targets' behaviors when held by multiple
Self-fulfilling effects of expectations do not occur in all social interactions. Instead,
some moderators of these effects have been demonstrated to influence their presence or
absence. Under certain conditions, behavioral disconfirmation of expectations has also been
shown to occur, whereby targets act in a manner opposite to perceivers' expectations.
The majority of the research attention has been devoted to uncovering the
motivational foundations of the behaviors by both perceivers and targets that are likely to
lead to confirmation or disconfirmation of perceivers' expectations. For example, Hilton and
Darley (1991) have theorized that perceivers may have different interaction goals that may
facilitate or inhibit confirmatory effects. Perceivers may take on an assessment set in some
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 17
interviews or getting acquainted conversations, a set that leads them to individuate targets, to
set aside expectations based on social categories, and to form a more “bottom-up”
impression; such an interaction goal is likely to make confirmation of expectations less likely.
Conversely, in some task-focused interactions, perceivers may be in an action set with their
motivation primarily directed toward a successful outcome in the task and therefore less
directed to individuating the target; consequently greater reliance on the target's social
categories and an impression formed "top down" may make confirmation of expectations
more likely. The content of the expectations and their relevance for the specific context of the
interaction may determine the extent to which assessment and action sets are primed in
Indeed, depending upon the context, perceivers have also been shown to be strength-
focused or weakness-focused in their social influence strategies for dealing with targets in
some task-focused interactions (e.g., Vescio, Snyder, & Butz, 2005). Strength-focused
perceivers activate the positive characteristics of targets and anticipate the ways in which
targets may help perceivers to meet their goals, whereas weakness-focused perceivers
activate the negative characteristics of targets and anticipate the ways in which targets may
block perceivers from meeting their goals. Perceivers who interact with targets stereotyped
with “matching” features (i.e., weakness-focused perceivers paying attention to stereotypic
weaknesses) are more likely to utilize stereotypes than perceivers who interact with targets
stereotyped with “non-matching” features (i.e., strength-focused perceivers not paying
attention to stereotypic weaknesses). In the former case, targets' real strengths and
weaknesses may be overshadowed by their group memberships to self-fulfilling effect.
Snyder and his colleagues (see Snyder, 1992, and Snyder & Stukas, 1999, for
reviews) have taken a functional approach in their studies of behavioral confirmation that
seeks to understand the reasons and purposes underlying the behaviors in which perceivers
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 18
and targets engage that lead to self-fulfilling effects. For example, experimental studies of
getting acquainted interactions (e.g., Snyder & Haugen, 1994) have demonstrated that when
perceivers were motivated to get to know the target, that is, to understand whether the target
did or did not fit with their initial expectations, then behavioral confirmation was more likely.
Conversely, when perceivers were motivated to get along with targets, then they were less
likely to engage in the behaviors that led to confirmation of their expectations, instead often
following the targets' lead or seeking to generate rapport even with targets of negative
expectations. Other researchers have investigated related motivations (see Neuberg, 1996, for
a review). For example, perceivers who were encouraged to ingratiate themselves to targets
also did not perform the behaviors that lead to confirmation of their expectations. However,
perceivers instructed explicitly to form accurate impressions, rather than simply to get to
know targets (which may lead them to use initial expectations as a guide), were less likely to
elicit behavioral confirmation, potentially because they were in an assessment set and
individuated the target.
The range of motivations that could lead to confirmatory effects may not be limited to
those that focus on utilizing beliefs because they help perceivers to quickly judge what they
can expect from targets. Additional research has suggested that perceivers who are motivated
to get along with targets can also elicit behavioral confirmation, potentially because they use
their beliefs and expectations about targets to help them design behaviours that will be most
comfortable and acceptable for targets and there are social advantages that they may see in
doing so (see Leyens et al., 1999). In line with this earlier research, perceivers placed in
positive moods (versus sad moods) have been shown to be more likely to pose matching
questions to targets and this effect was mediated by greater motivation to get along with
targets (Dardennes et al., 2011). Thus, it appears that whenever perceivers are motivated to
use their expectations to guide their actions with targets, either to help them to get to know
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 19
targets or to help them to get along with targets, they may create conditions that elicit
confirmatory behavior from targets.
In comparison, research has more consistently shown that targets who seek to get
along with perceivers are more likely to provide confirmation of expectations, consciously or
unconsciously fitting in with perceivers' expectations by following their lead or directions
(e.g., Snyder & Haugen, 1995). For example, Neuberg (1996) has demonstrated that targets
who were instructed to defer to perceivers were more likely to demonstrate behavioral
confirmation. Moreover, targets instructed to challenge perceivers were less likely to yield to
perceivers' expectations. Similarly, targets who were charged with getting to know perceivers
tended to block confirmatory effects because they may have focused more on directing the
conversation than on responding to perceivers' overtures (e.g., Snyder & Haugen, 1995).
Most studies of the motives and goals that are engaged during social interaction
experimentally manipulated these variables using instructions provided to perceivers and
targets, but a clever study by Copeland (1994) demonstrated that structural features of social
interactions may also serve to elicit the very motivations that may be most likely to lead to
self-fulfilling effects of perceivers' expectations. He provided perceivers with an expectation
about targets (that they were extraverted or introverted) and then randomly assigned them to
have more power than targets (i.e., they could subsequently decide whether targets would
participate in a potentially lucrative game) or less power than targets (targets had the decision
in their hands). Behavioral confirmation occurred when perceivers had more power than
targets and not in the reverse situation. Perceivers with power also indicated that they were
more motivated to get to know targets (and less motivated to get along with them) and targets
without power indicated that they were more motivated to get along with (but not to get to
know) perceivers. Thus, the power dynamics between perceivers and targets in the social
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 20
interactions for which self-fulfilling effects could have the most consequential implications
for targets, such as interactions between teachers and students, therapists and clients,
interviewers and job candidates, are the very same power dynamics that may be most likely
to allow for such effects to occur.
Of course, higher power is associated not only with motivations to use expectations to
understand lower powered interaction partners, but also with the ability to dictate the terms of
the interaction, to guide its course, and to ensure certain outcomes for targets (see Snyder &
Kiviniemi, 2001, for a review). Furthermore, simply having access to an expectation about
another person grants perceivers a sense of power (e.g., Baldwin, Kiviniemi & Snyder, 2009),
as does simply expecting to interact with a target from a chronically stigmatized group (e.g.,
Klein, Snyder, & Gonzalez, 2009). Opportunities for perceivers already in positions of higher
interpersonal power to interact with lower-powered targets for whom they hold clear (and
sometimes stigmatizing) expectations may occur regularly, especially in certain settings
identified as "confirmation-prone" by Snyder and Stukas (2007).
For example, in clinical settings where doctors and therapists have considerably more
power than patients and clients, the pivotal motivations to get to know and to get along with
targets may be analogous to the clinical goals of enabling diagnosis and generating rapport.
In one study by Copeland and Snyder (1995), student participants took on the roles of peer
counselor and client. When they were motivated to diagnose, but not to develop rapport,
these counselors elicited behavioral confirmation of expectations related to extraversion and
introversion from their clients. However, subsequent research (see Leyens et al., 1999) has
suggested that attempts to develop rapport may also lead to the confirmation of expectations.
In this case, efforts to get along are expected to be smoothed by perceivers' use of knowledge
about targets; therefore, the use of schemas about what targets might be like, combined with
therapists' greater power to control the conversation, could still lead to behavioral
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 21
confirmation. In a study designed to test these competing arguments, Tandos and Stukas
(2010) found that both diagnostic and rapport-building goals led therapist trainees to confirm
expectations of depression in randomly assigned undergraduate student targets. Moreover,
Collins and Stukas (2006) found that when targets believed that a therapist was of especially
high status (or when they were especially positive toward the process of therapy), they were
more willing to accept therapist feedback that had been manipulated to be inconsistent with
their own self-views (about introversion or extraversion). Such findings suggest that the
effects of power dynamics on the confirmation of expectations in clinical settings may be
particularly insidious (e.g., Harris, 1994).
In organisational settings, research has focused on leaders' perceptions and
expectations of their subordinates (see Kierein & Gold, 2000, for a quantitative review).
Again, in dyads marked by strong power differences, leaders with positive expectations of
their employees have been able to increase both the self-efficacy and performance of these
workers. Consequently the organizational literature has focused on the qualities of the
leadership style of the perceiver that might facilitate these positive Pygmalion effects.
Research by King (1971) and others has demonstrated that positive expectations for specific
employees by supervisors can reduce absenteeism, increase motivation to learn the job,
increase actual performance at required tasks, and subsequently, increase co-worker esteem
(see Eden, 2003, for a review). As in research in the classroom, perceivers have been shown
to influence targets positively through supportive behaviors focused on goal setting, learning
opportunities, and feedback. Recently, researchers have also turned their attention to the
subordinates' perceptions of the leader, including their trustworthiness, as a potential
moderator of these effects (see Karakowsky, DeGama & McBey, 2012).
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 22
Little research has examined efforts to reduce or eliminate self-fulfilling prophecies
involving the confirmation of negative expectations. Instead, researchers have often sought to
provide evidence that the phenomenon is not as concerning as it might seem, suggesting that
effects of erroneous expectations are generally small and not typically powerful (e.g., Jussim,
Eccles, & Madon, 1996). In addition, there are lines of research focused on the ability of
perceivers to make accurate judgments from very "thin slices" of behavior (e.g., Ambady,
Bernieri, & Richeson, 2000) and on how, in ordinary social interactions, diagnostic and open
hypothesis-testing strategies may prevail (e.g., Bassok & Trope, 1984).
However, none of these lines of investigation is strong enough to overcome the real
negative impacts that self-fulfilling effects of expectations, particularly negative and
stigmatising expectations, may have for targets when they do occur. Such effects are large
under certain moderating conditions, perhaps especially when expectations are shared by
multiple perceivers and can accumulate across time and interactions (although more research
is needed to investigate this) -- and they can have serious consequences. For example,
research by Kassin and colleagues (e.g., Kassin, Goldstein, & Savitsky, 2003) suggests that
police interrogators primed with expectations of guilt may even bring innocent targets to the
point of false confessions and/or the appearance of guilt to both interrogators and objective
observers. Even in less consequential settings, the targets of negative expectations may find
that they have less opportunity to disconfirm negative expectations, as perceivers may choose
to limit their opportunities and even their ability to continue interacting together in the future.
In particular, as Snyder and Stukas (1999) pointed out, the process of confirming positive and
negative expectations in social interaction may be linked to perceivers' inclusionary and
exclusionary orientations toward targets that serve to invite or deny future interactions and
relationships with these targets. Third party observers of targets' stereotype-confirming
behaviors may also come to feel that they gained support for shared social stereotypes, which
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 23
may help to further solidify erroneous beliefs about social categories in the larger society (see
Snyder & Klein, 2005).
Nevertheless, some researchers have explored ways in which these negative effects
might be averted. For example, Dumont, Yzerbyt, Snyder et al. (2003) instructed perceivers
to suppress their stereotypes when preparing for interactions with targets and in this case they
did not select matching or biased questions; however, the act of suppression made stereotypes
more salient which could subsequently guide impressions despite the more controlled actions
of perceivers. Additionally, as we have seen, perceivers who are explicitly motivated to
develop accurate perceptions of targets may be able to set aside their expectations and
therefore not elicit confirming behavior (e.g., Hilton & Darley, 1991; Neuberg, 1996).
Targets who are made aware of perceivers' beliefs with which they do not agree (and can not
easily write off as temporary judgments) may also be sufficiently motivated to provide
disconfirming behavior (e.g., Hilton & Darley, 1985), provided they are not in positions of
especially low power (e.g., Snyder & Klein, 2005). In the case of targets of negative social
stereotypes, combatting them one perceiver at a time may however result in more stress than
is good for their health (e.g., Bennett, Merritt, Sollers et al., 2004).
Perhaps the most promising way to reduce the impact of negative expectations is to
facilitate a reduction in erroneous expectations in the first place. Research on positive
intergroup contact has demonstrated that bringing together perceivers and targets under
conditions that encourage the development of empathy, reduce intergroup anxiety, and
promote self-disclosures beneficial to the creation of individuated impressions can reduce
prejudice (see Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008). Such conditions have typically involved the
provision of equal status to both ingroup and outgroup members, as well as opportunities to
interact with a common cooperative goal and under the sanction of an approving authority
(e.g., Allport, 1954); however, recent research has suggested that even simply imagining
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 24
positive contact with an outgroup target or knowing that a friend has outgroup friends can
improve negative beliefs about such groups (e.g., Crisp & Turner, 2009; Wright, Aron,
McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997).
Although efforts are surely needed to reduce negative and erroneous expectations, we
may wish to turn the other way when considering whether to intervene to reduce the effects
of erroneous positive expectations. Although any erroneous (or even accurate) expectation
may be limiting for targets, with higher-powered perceivers potentially restricting their
behavioral options, even in a benevolent way, there is now sufficient evidence to suggest that
idealized perceptions of targets can have beneficial effects. For example, within close
relationships, overly positive perceptions of a romantic partner are associated with greater
relationship satisfaction for both partners (e.g., Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996). Indeed,
through what has been called the Michelangelo effect (e.g., Drigotas, Rusbult, Wieselquist, &
Whitton, 1999), perceivers may enable their romantic partners to come closer to their ideal
selves by treating their partners in line with such overly positive expectations. As we have
seen, in the workplace as well, supervisors' positive expectations may influence employees'
perceptions of what they are capable (see Eden, 2003). The effects of erroneous positive
expectations may even be stronger in naturalistic settings than the negative effects uncovered
in many experiments (e.g., Madon et al., 2011).
For social scientists, then, the self-fulfilling prophecy continues to be of very special
significance. It represents a particularly complex intertwining of cognitive activities and
behavioral processes in the context of ongoing social interaction and interpersonal
relationships. As such, it has intriguing implications for the reciprocal influences of
“subjective” reality (the perceiver’s beliefs) and “objective” reality (the target’s behavior) in
a wide range of interaction contexts of considerable theoretical and practical significance.
SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES 25
Moreover, the impact of self-fulfilling prophecies, both negative and positive, on the targets
of expectations has serious implications both for individuals and for the broader intergroup
contexts in which they live.
Research on self-fulfilling prophecies has moved from initially documenting the
existence of the phenomenon and its many consequences to investigating mediators and
moderators of the effects. Research has focused explicitly on the motivational and structural
elements of social interactions that involve self-fulfilling prophecies so as to better
understand when and why they occur. Researchers have continued to examine the role of the
self-fulfilling prophecy in applied settings, but have only just begun to design and test
interventions that can inhibit or attenuate any negative consequences of this phenomenon,
while still being mindful of the potentially beneficial effects of positive self-fulfilling
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