Mental Models

“The Self-Fulfilling Prophecies” Fallacy

It’s in human nature to simplify the world around us, to identify patterns of behavior and to categorize further behavior based on the beliefs, perceived patterns and mental models we form. Furthermore, we tend to look for cues that accustom our believes, even if the cues aren’t there, and we find ourselves in the position of modifying the “reality” as it seems fit. The mental models we live by are powerful because they allow us identifying, explaining, handling and predicting situations we are confronted with almost in automatic modus. These models can prove to be useful in a range of situations, however their power has a double effect on us, as they can prove to be damaging for ourselves as well for the others.

As Thomas Jefferson remarked “the moment a person forms a theory [or mental model], his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory”. The mental models are used to filter the information around, and to reinforce the beliefs in respect to the formed models. We attempt to predict certain outcome and behavior, and, through our behavior and reasoning, we attempt to support the beliefs and facts behind the prediction, forcing the prediction to become true. It’s what is known metaphorically as a self-fulfilling prophecy, considering that a prediction can be considered as a prophecy and the person making the prediction kind of a prophet for his own world.

Wikipedia defines a self-fulfilling prophecy as “a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior” [2]. According to Robert Merthon, the first who coined the concept, “the self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true” [1]. The false definition can result from false or incomplete information, false assumptions, wrong identification of the context, and in the end from the limitations of the available models.

Unfortunately, the people who suffer the most from this fallacy are not the originators but the people around, and this from the early years of their childhood, when based on certain misconceptions their capabilities are evaluated and reinforced on them. It starts with the parents and the people found in the extended circle of their family, by teachers and later by colleagues or managers. However, the most influential time is the one spent in school, where teachers’ perceptions and behavior determine to high degree students’ performance.

When a teacher repeatedly declares about a student that he’s stupid or makes similar statements with negative effect, the student will either start believing them, question teacher’s judgment and event attempt proving that the teacher is wrong. It’s deplorable when no matter of student’s effort the teacher persists in his impression(s) and further supports them - in time the student will accept the situation and in extremis will stop trying. Unfortunately, the educational setup favors such scenarios.

When the originators persist in their mistakes then the fallacy can impact their lives as well as their behavior can be recognized by others as unjust, discriminatory, immature, etc. Feedback can prove to be helpful to identify that one has a problem, though usually it comes late. One’s chance is to become aware of his presumptions, reasoning and mental models one brings forth into the world and the effect they have on other people. Through effort, awareness, adaptation of the models, and continuous feedback, one can escape this circle of misconceptions and this might pay off, because in the end we reap what we sow.

References:
[1] Robert K Merton (1948), “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” , The Antioch Review Vol. 8 (2), [Online] Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4609267
[2] Wikipedia (2018) Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, [Online] Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-fulfilling_prophecy

IT professional/blogger with more than 19 years experience in IT - Software Engineering, BI & Analytics, Data, Project, Quality, Database & Knowledge Management