Friday, March 26, 2010

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A stereotype is a set of beliefs about the characteristics of a social group. For example, Asians as a group may be thought to be intelligent and good at mathematics, or African Americans may be viewed as generally athletic compared to other groups. Stereotyping is the act of attributing these characteristics or attributes thought to characterize the group as a whole to individuals simply due to their membership in the group.

Stereotypes lead to inferences about the members of a group and result in certain expectations about them. The attributes of the stereotype are applied to specific individuals. But doing so may lead to inaccurate perceptions and inappropriate behavior in integroup settings. Expecting someone to be unfriendly or hostile, for example, will undermine the development of positive interactions with the person due to elicitation of defensive or guarded behavior on the part of the perceiver. When this pattern of biased behavior occurs as a consequence of an incorrect expectation on the part of the perceiver, a self-fulfilling prophecy is said to occur.

Self-fulfilling prophecies may occur at a societal level or within interactions occurring between individuals. In the latter case, a self-fulfilling prophecy may arise when:

  1. The perceiver has an initial expectation about another person or group of people that is untrue.
  2. This erroneous belief biases behavior in the perceiver
  3. The perceiver's behavior then elicits behavior in the target person that confirms the erroneous expectation.

A self-fulfilling prophecy then only occurs if the original expectation is false and results in a confirmation of the originally false belief. In so doing, it may perpetuate or further strengthen the erroneous misconception regarding the individual or social group.

Merton's Focus

The notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy was introduced by the sociologist Robert Merton (1948). He was concerned with how they occur at an institutional or societal level. For example, he describes how in the early 20th century African Americans were barred from most labor unions and justified by the belief that they were strikebreakers who couldn't be trusted. However, given this exclusion, African Americans were deprived of many jobs. Given few choices they would take advantage of strikes to obtain employment they could not otherwise find, thereby fulfilling the stereotype. In this case, exclusionary institutional practices perpetuated the self-fulfilling prophecy rather than any one individual's behavior.

Rosenthal's Work

Within psychology the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy found application in the work of Rosenthal and his colleagues. They employed the idea as a means of explaining how experimenter expectations could bias the outcomes of experimental research. Rosenthal and Lawson (1964) led one group of students to think that the rats they were training were especially smart whereas another group were told the rats were relatively dull. Although there were no real differences among the rats in the two groups, those thought to be smarter took less time to learn and complete a maze than those being trained by students with lower expectations. The results confirmed the students' expectations even though they were completely false, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This study was a milestone in psychological research. It highlighted an important alternate interpretation of research findings and the need to keep experimenters blind as to a study's hypotheses and the assignment of participants to experimental conditions. A later study, however, provided the impetus for a wave of research on self-fulfilling prophecies. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968). In this research teachers' expectations about their students were manipulated. They were led to believe that some students were "late bloomers" who had greater potential to excel in the classroom. And although the labeling of students was randomly determined, those students showed increases in their IQ scores over the course of the year that outpaced the other students. Subsequent research focused not on this positive outcome as much as the implications for how negative expectations about disadvantaged students could potentially undermine their educational attainment or perpetuate erroneous stereotypes about minority groups.

Word, Zanna & Cooper

Utilizing the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy, it can be seen how ethnic, gender or other negative stereotypes could be perpetuated through intergroup interactions that provide false confirmation of these beliefs. In a classic study of how such interactions might unfold, Word, Zanna and Cooper (1974) performed two experiments that examined the role of nonverbal behavior in the process. In an initial study they had participants interviewers engage either White or African American confederates who acted as interviewees for the study. It was found that the participants engaged in less immediate nonverbal behavior when interviewing the African American interviewee. These are behaviors that signify less acceptance or liking of the other person, and may include such behaviors as reduced eye contact, sitting further away, facing less directly towards the other, spending less time in interaction, and committing more speech errors.

This first experiment alone does not provide evidence of a self-fulfilling prophecy but a second study further extends support for this explanation. In this study, white confederates acted as interviewers rather than interviewees and white students served as subjects. In one condition, the interviewers acted in a less immediate manner, similar to what was found among those participants of the prior study who had interviewed an African American. In a second condition the nonverbal behavior was more accepting of the participants, and modeled after that displayed previously towards the white interviewees of the first study. Specifically, in the low immediacy group, the interviewer sat further away, spent less time in the interview, and made relatively more speech errors than in the latter group. And what was the effect of this less friendly behavior? First, it was found that the interviewees reciprocated the immediacy level of nonverbal behaviors displayed by the interviewers. But more importantly, those in the low immediacy group were rated as being less qualified for the prospective job by "blind" judges. Thus, racial biases led to less acceptance of African American job candidates and this appeared to undermine their performance in the interview setting.

What remains unclear from these experiments is whether the more negative nonverbal behavior displayed towards African Americans was due to lower expectations regarding their job qualifications, that is, whether it originated in negative racial stereotypes. It is also possible that something else about the interracial interaction caused participants to respond less favorably towards the African American interviewees. Many concepts have been proposed over the years to explain the often strained nature of interracial interactions. Although such interactions could be aversive due to negative stereotypes and expectations, they may also uncomfortable due to internal conflict residing within the perceiver. It has been argued that a conflict exists between negative emotions, and implicit negative stereotypes, on the one hand and a desire to also appear unprejudiced or egalitarian on the other. Such concepts as ambivalence (Katz, Wackenhut & Hass, 1986), aversive racism (Gaertner & Dividio, 1986), modern racism (McConahay, 1986), and intergroup anxiety (Stephan & Stephan, 1985) provide examples and may explain the findings of Word et al. (1974). The discomfort felt in the setting may result in its avoidance as reflected in less immediate nonverbal behavior towards the other person.

Snyder, Tanke & Berscheid

However, other studies outside of interracial contexts provide further evidence that stereotypes may mediate self-fulfilling prophecies. In one of these (Snyder, Tanke & Berscheid, 1977) pairs of male and female college students interacted with each other via a telephone. The study was said to be one of "acquaintance processes in social relationships." The man in each pair was given a photograph and some background information on his female partner. Half were assigned to a condition in which an attractive woman's photo was provided to the male participants. The other half were treated identically except that the photos were of relatively unattractive women.

In line with stereotypes about physically attractive people, the men in the high attractiveness condition thought their partners were more sociable, poised, humorous and socially adept than men in the low attractiveness condition. The photographs activated the physical attractiveness stereotype. More importantly, ratings of the female participants, by judges who only had access to their portion of the taped conversations, were more favorable on those specific attributes comprising the male participants' stereotypes. In other words, the women came to act as expected by the physical attractiveness stereotype. Furthermore, ratings of the men's behavior indicated that their own behavior mediated the behavior of their female partners. The men in the high attractiveness condition were seen as more attractive and confident, and as showing more initiative and liking towards their partners than men in the low attractiveness condition.


These studies demonstrate how stereotypes can potentially bias the outcome of dyadic interactions more generally and intergroup interactions more specifically. A stereotype may evoke behavior in the perceiver that elicits behavior in a target confirming the stereotype, even when the perceiver's expectations have no factual basis. When these stereotypes suggest poor academic achievement, ineffective job performance, violent or criminal behavior, or other undesirable traits and behavior, the potential for victimization of the stereotyped or stigmatized person can become very real.

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