Critical Thinking Part 4
So, do you all remember the story of Oedipus? I hope so, because if not, you’re probably wasting all your mind power wondering about nonsensical things like whether or not Iron Man’s suit could really fly.
Anyway, Oedipus is the focus of a prophecy, which states that he’ll kill his father and sleep with his mother. His parents say “no thanks” and his mother calls a shepherd to off the baby, who ends up sending Oedipus to grow up elsewhere (moral: shepherds are the worst assassins ever). Oedipus grows up, learns of the prophecy, and tries to avoid it. True tragic form, all of their actions inevitably bring about said prophecy.
“Self-fulfilling prophecies” (1) occur when people form expectations about people that are untrue at the beginning (e.g. Oedipus = worst baby ever) and by behaving in line with those expectations (e.g. attempted baby assassination), help to cause the expected behavior.
Consider another example… Imagine that you’re about to dine with Robert Downey Jr., but you’re not very excited about it because you expect that because he’s a celebrity he will be a jerk (in real life, let’s say he’s actually a peach).
For the sake of this post, place yourself in the fantastical world in which having dinner with RDJ would be against your will.
At the restaurant, the waiter’s just dropped off a menu with words like “truffle” and “amuse-bouche,” because of course Iron Man would pick somewhere that’s pretentiously over-priced.
Then, amidst a frenzy of autograph-mongers, RDJ arrives. He strides up to the table, takes a seat and you roll your eyes. He gives a curt, “hello.” You bristle at this first suggestion of his unpleasantness.
Appetizers are ordered, Iron Man chooses bone marrow. You ask why he’d order something so disgusting. His eyes narrow before he asks why your face is so disgusting (also, maybe he’s better at comebacks in real life).
Dinner plummets from there and eventually ends with RDJ storming out and leaving you with a bill for hundreds of dollars. Unbeknownst to you, you’ve also gained your first arch-nemesis and missed out on an invitation to join the avengers.
“See,” you’ll tell your friends, “Iron Man made me pay for the whole thing! I was right. All celebrities are self-absorbed.” At this point you’re ignoring the fact that your eye-rolling and rude questioning probably annoyed fictional Robert Downey Jr.
Knowing about self-fulfilling prophecies is important because they highlight how our behavior influences other people and can make us think that we were right in our negative (or positive) expectations, when we really played a large part in causing them to come true. Self-fulfilling prophecies also lead us to interpret neutral behavior as in line with our expectations, giving our beliefs more strength.
So, what’s the solution?
Again it comes back to paying attention to your own behavior and curbing judgmental impulses. If you think the person will be a jerk, be extra nice and attempt to disconfirm your initial belief.
And yes, I know that Iron Man is just a character and RDJ is just an actor, wink wink.
1. Rosenthal, R. (2006). Applying psychological research on interpersonal expectations and covert communication in classrooms, clinics, corporations, and courthouses. In S. I. Donaldson, D. E. Berger, & K. Pedzek (Eds.), Applied Psychology: New frontiers and rewarding careers (pp. 107-118). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.