Self-fulfilling prophecy

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true. Although examples of such prophecies can be found in literature as far back as ancient Greece and ancient India, it is 20th-century sociologist Robert K. Merton who is credited with coining the expression "self-fulfilling prophecy" and formalizing its structure and consequences. In his book Social Theory and Social Structure, Merton gives as a feature of the self-fulfilling prophecy:
The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come 'true'. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.

In other words, a prophecy declared as truth when it is actually false may sufficiently influence people, either through fear or logical confusion, so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false prophecy.

History of the concept

Robert K. Merton's concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy stems from the Thomas theorem, which states that:
If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.''
According to Thomas, people do not react only to the situations they are in, but also, and often primarily, to the way they perceive the situations and to the meaning they assign to these situations. Therefore, their behavior is determined in part by their perception and the meaning they ascribe to the situations they are in, rather than by the situations themselves. Once people convince themselves that a situation really has a certain meaning, regardless of whether it actually does, they will take very real actions in consequence.

Merton took the concept a step further and applied it to recent social phenomena. In his book Social Theory and Social Structure, he conceives of a bank run at the fictional bank of Cartwright Millingville. It is a typical bank, and Millingville has run it honestly and quite properly. As a result, like all banks, it has some liquid assets (cash), but most of its assets are invested in various ventures. Then one day, a large number of customers come to the bank at once—the exact reason is never made clear. Customers, seeing so many others at the bank, begin to worry. False rumors spread that something is wrong with the bank and more customers rush to the bank to try to get some of their money out while they still can. The number of customers at the bank increases, as does their annoyance and excitement, which in turn fuels the false rumors of the bank's insolvency and upcoming bankruptcy, causing more customers to come and try to withdraw their money. At the beginning of the day—the last one for Millingville's bank—the bank was not insolvent. But the rumor of insolvency caused a sudden demand of withdrawal of too many customers, which could not be answered, causing the bank to become insolvent and declare bankruptcy. Merton concludes this example with the following analysis:

The parable tells us that public definitions of a situation (prophecies or predictions) become an integral part of the situation and thus affect subsequent developments, This is peculiar to human affairs. It is not found in the world of nature, untouched by human hands. Predictions of the return of Halley’s comet do not influence its orbit. But the rumored insolvency of Millingville’s bank did affect the actual outcome. The prophecy of collapse led to its own fulfillment.

Merton concluded that the only way to break the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy is by redefining the propositions on which its false assumptions are originally based.

Philosopher Karl Popper called the phenomenon the Oedipus effect.

One of the ideas I had discussed in The Poverty [of Historicism] was the influence of a prediction upon the event predicted. I had called this the “Oedipus effect”, because the oracle played a most important role in the sequence of events which led to the fulfillment of its prophecy. … For a time I thought that the existence of the Oedipus effect distinguished the social from the natural sciences. But in biology, too—even in molecular biology—expectations often play a role in bringing about what has been expected.


Examples abound in studies of cognitive dissonance theory and the related self-perception theory; people will often change their attitudes to come into line with what they profess publicly.

In the United States the concept was broadly and consistently applied in the field of public education reform, following the "War on Poverty". Theodore Brameld noted: “In simplest terms, education already projects and thereby reinforces whatever habits of personal and cultural life are considered to be acceptable and dominant.” The effects of teacher attitudes, beliefs and values, affecting their expectations have been tested repeatedly.

The phenomenon of the "inevitability of war" is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has received considerable study.

The idea is similar to that discussed by the philosopher William James as The Will to Believe. But James viewed it positively, as the self-validation of a belief. Just as, in Merton's example, the belief that a bank is insolvent may help create the fact, so too on the positive side, confidence in the bank's prospects may help brighten them. A more Jamesian example: a swain, convinced that the fair maiden must love him, may prove more effective in his wooing than he would had his initial prophecy been defeatist.

Other specific examples discussed in psychology include:

Literature, media, and the arts

In literature, self-fulfilling prophecies are often used as plot devices. They have been used in stories for millennia, but have gained a lot of popularity recently in the science fiction genre. They are typically used ironically, with the prophesied events coming to pass due to the actions of one trying to prevent the prophecy. They are also sometimes used as comic relief.


Many myths, legends and fairy tales make use of this motif as a central element of narratives that are designed to illustrate inexorable fate, fundamental to the Hellenic world-view. In a common motif, a child, whether newborn or not yet conceived, is prophesied to cause something that those in power do not want to happen. This may be the death of the powerful person; in more light-hearted versions, it is often the marriage of a poor or lower-class child to his own. The events come about, nevertheless, as a result of the actions taken to prevent them: frequently child abandonment sets the train of events in motion.


The best known example from Greek legend is that of Oedipus. Warned that his child would one day kill him, Laius abandoned his newborn son Oedipus to die, but Oedipus was found and raised by others, and thus in ignorance of his true origins. When he grew up, Oedipus was warned that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing his foster parents were his real parents, he left his home and traveled Greece, eventually reaching the city where his biological parents lived. There, he got into a fight with a stranger, his real father, killed him and married his widow, Oedipus's real mother.

This motif is repeated in other Greek legends, as in Telephus, a son of Hercules prophesied to kill his uncle. His grandfather had him abandoned, which led to his being raised in ignorance of his birth. He met his uncle and his uncle's men, who taunted him with this ignorance, and in anger, he killed his uncle.

The story of Zeus and Chronos is unusual in that Zeus is aware of the prophecy; usually the prophesied child commits the predicted acts in ignorance, whereas Zeus deliberately sets out to overthrow his father in fulfillment of the prophecy. Zeus is also able to forestall similar prophecies for himself. When he hears that Metis's second child will be a son who will destroy him, he tricks and swallows her, preventing her from ever conceiving this son. When he is wooing Thetis, he is warned (by different oracles in different legends, including the titan Prometheus) that her son will be greater than his father, and so marries her off to the mortal Peleus; Peleus's son Achilles then proves to be greater than his father.

Although the legend of Perseus opens with the prophecy that he will kill his grandfather Acrisius, and his abandonment with his mother Danaë, the prophecy is only self-fulfilling in some variants. In some, he accidentally spears his grandfather at a competition — an act that could have happened regardless of Acrisius's response to the prophecy. In other variants, his presence at the games is explained by his hearing of the prophecy, so that his attempt to evade it does cause the prophecy to be fulfilled. In still others, Acrisius is one of the wedding guests when Polydectes tried to force Danaë to marry him, and when Perseus turns them to stone with the Gorgon's head; as Polydectes fell in love with Danaë because Acrisius abandoned her at sea, and Perseus killed the Gorgon as a consequence of Polydectes's attempt to get rid of Danaë's son so that he could marry her, the prophecy fulfilled itself in these variants.


Self-fulfilling prophecies appear in classical Sanskrit literature. In the story of Krishna in the Indian epic Mahabharata, the ruler of the Mathura kingdom, Kansa (also referred to as Kamsa), afraid of a prophecy that predicted his death at the hands of his sister Devaki's son, had her cast into prison where he planned to kill all of her children at birth. After killing the first six children, and Devaki's apparent miscarriage of the seventh, Krishna (the eighth son) took birth. As his life was in danger he was smuggled out to be raised by his foster parents Yashoda and Nanda in the village of Gokul. Years later, Kansa learnt about the child's escape and kept sending various demons to put an end to him. The demons were defeated at the hands of Krishna and his brother Balarama. Krishna as a young man returned to Mathura to overthrow his uncle, and Kansa was eventually killed by his nephew Krishna. It was due to Kansa's attempts to prevent the prophecy that led to it coming true, thus fulfilling the prophecy.


The story of Romulus and Remus is another example. According to legend, a man overthrew his brother, the king. He then ordered that his two nephews, Romulus and Remus, be drowned, fearing that they would someday kill him like he did to his brother. The boys were placed in a basket and thrown in the Tiber River. A female wolf found the babies and raised them. Later, a shepherd found the twins and named them Romulus and Remus. As teenagers, they found out who they were. They killed their uncle, fulfilling the prophecy.


The story of the Death of Baldr in Norse mythology provides another example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The young god Baldr, the most beautiful, kind and wise of the gods, has a prophetic dream of his own death. He told his mother Frigg about it, and she was so distraught at the thought of her own son dying that she made every object on earth take a vow not to hurt her son. As nothing could now injure Baldr, the gods started hurling objects at him for entertainment, only to see every object bounce of him without a scratch. This soon became the favourite pastime of the gods.

Jealous of Baldrs newfound popularity, Loki the trickster, went to Frigg in disguise to find out if there was anything that could hurt Baldr. He found out that Frigg had not asked the mistletoe to make the vow, thinking that it was too non-threatening and unimportant to ask. Loki proceeded to make a magical spear from the plant (in some versions it was an arrow). Loki gave the spear to Baldrs blind brother Höðr, who proceeded to hurl the spear at Baldr, killing him instantly. Thus the prophecy of Baldrs dream was fulfilled.

Fairy tales

Many fairy tales, such as The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs, The Fish and the Ring, The Story of Three Wonderful Beggars, or The King Who Would Be Stronger Than Fate, revolve about a prophecy that a poor boy will marry a rich girl (or, less frequently, a poor girl a rich boy). This is story type 930 in the Aarne-Thompson classification scheme. The girl's father's efforts to prevent it are the reason why the boy ends up marrying her.

Another fairy tale occurs with older children. In The Language of the Birds, a father forces his son to tell him what the birds say: that the father would be the son's servant. In The Ram, the father forces his daughter to tell him her dream: that her father would hold an ewer for her to wash her hands in. In all such tales, the father takes the child's response as evidence of ill-will and drives the child off; this allows the child to change so that the father will not recognize his own offspring later and so offer to act as the child's servant.

In some variants of Sleeping Beauty, such as Sun, Moon, and Talia, the sleep is not brought about by a curse, but a prophecy that she will be endangered by flax (or hemp) results in the royal order to remove all the flax or hemp from the castle, resulting in her ignorance of the danger and her curiosity.


Shakespeare's Macbeth is another classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The three witches give Macbeth a prophecy that Macbeth will eventually become king, but the offspring of his best friend will rule instead of his afterwards. Macbeth tries to make the first half true while trying to keep his bloodline on the throne instead of his friend's. Spurred by the prophecy, he kills the king and his friend, something he never would have done before. In the end, the evil actions he committed to avoid his succession by another's bloodline get him killed in a revolution. The later prophecy by the first apparition of the witches that Macbeth should "Beware Macduff" is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Macbeth had not been told this, then he might not have regarded Macduff as a threat. Therefore he would not have killed Macduff's family, and Macduff would not have sought revenge and killed Macbeth.


Oleg of Novgorod was a Varangian prince who ruled of the Rus people during the early tenth century. As old East Slavic chronicles say it was prophesied by the pagan priests that Oleg would take death from his stallion. To avoid this he sent the horse away. Many years later he asked where his horse was, and was told it had died. He asked to see the remains and was taken to the place where the bones lay. When he touched the horse's skull with his boot a snake slithered from the skull and bit him. Oleg died, thus fulfilling the prophecy. In the Primary Chronicle, Oleg is known as the Prophet, ironically referring to the circumstances of his death. The story was romanticized by Alexander Pushkin in his celebrated ballad "The Song of the Wise Oleg". In Scandinavian traditions, this legend lived on in the saga of Orvar-Odd.



  • Most "Force Visions" in the Star Wars universe are self fulfilling prophecies, for example the plot of the 2005 film Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was based around a self-fulfilling prophecy. The main character, Anakin Skywalker, has a premonitory dream about the death of his wife Padmé Amidala. He searches for a way to save her, and in desperation, allies himself with the evil Sith. However, it is Anakin’s turn to evil that ends up killing Padmé.
  • In the 2006 Indian film Krrish, the antagonist Dr. Arya builds an advanced computer that could predict the future. After seeing his own future death at the hands of the protagonist Krrish, he goes looking for him to hunt him down. Krrish's friend Kristian is shot dead by Dr. Arya when he is mistaken for Krrish. After finding his friend dead, Krrish becomes intent on getting revenge against Dr. Arya, and eventually kills him, exactly as the computer predicted. Dr. Arya's attempt to prevent his death led to it becoming true.
  • The 1999 movie The Matrix heavily incorporates the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies. One recognizable scene that directly references to it is when Morpheus takes Neo to see the Oracle. When Neo walks in to speak to the Oracle, she says "I'd ask you to sit down, but you're not going to anyway. And don't worry about the vase." Neo answers "What vase?" and turns around to see what she could be talking about, but in doing so knocks over and breaks a vase that was sitting on a counter next to him. Neo apologizes and the Oracle reminds him not to worry about it. Neo asks how she knew, to which the Oracle responds, "What's really going to bake your noodle later on is: would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?"
  • The plot of the 1988 movie Willow also incorporates a self-fulfilling prophecy: warned that Elora Danan's birth will lead to her destruction, the evil Queen Bavmorda orders to kill the baby; however, her attempts to achieve this result in her own destruction.
  • In the 2002 film Minority Report (originally a short story by Philip K. Dick which had a different kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, see below), a prophecy is made when John Anderton discovers that the Precrime department predicts that he will murder a certain person, who is a complete stranger to him, in 36 hours. In trying to find his target in order to find out what is happening, John Anderton almost fulfills the prophecy when he discovers evidence that points to this person as the one who kidnapped his son years before. In the end, he does fulfill the prophecy when it turns out that the man was going to be murdered accidentally all along.
  • In the 2003 film Paycheck (also a Philip K. Dick story), Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) creates a machine that sees into the future. He sees an apocalypse that he discovers only comes about through his knowledge of it, and his potential attempts to avoid it.
  • In the movie Premonition (2007), Linda Hanson (Sandra Bullock) acts on premonitions and thus causes the critical event to happen.
  • In the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda, Master Shifu hears a prophesy that his nemesis Tai Lung will escape from prison. Despite being warned that "one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it", Shifu dispatches a messenger to warn the prsion guards. In doing so, the messenger drops a feather which Tai Lung then uses to escape.


  • In The Minority Report, a short story by Philip K. Dick, the protagonist is foretold to murder a man whom he has never met. Each of the three precognitive mutants gives different versions of the future crime. In the first one John Anderton learns of a plot by Leopold Kaplan to destroy Precrime, and murders him. In the second one, John Anderton, head of Precrime, learns of the first report and repents to save his position and life. In the third prediction, Anderton realizes the second report is precisely the situation Kaplan wanted to create: Precrime giving false predictions. Therefore, the majority report is Anderton killing Kaplan, and Anderton decides to fulfill it to save Precrime.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel takes Frodo and Sam to look in the "Mirror of Galadriel". They see a number of visions in the Mirror, and Sam, in particular, is distressed by seeing his father evicted from their home, so he considers abandoning his mission in order to return to the Shire. Galadriel reminds him that "the Mirror shows many things, and some have not yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those who behold the visions turn aside from their paths to prevent them." [emphasis not in original]
  • In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it is revealed that a prophecy was made shortly before Harry Potter’s birth, saying that the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord would be born shortly. To stop the prophecy from coming true, the Dark Lord attempted to kill Harry while he was an infant, but his curse backfired on him, vanquishing him for 13 years in the process, and transferring some of his powers to Harry. Dumbledore tells Harry several times that the prophecy is only true because the Dark Lord believes it. Harry is free to turn his back on it, but the fact that Voldemort will never turn his back on it, and therefore never rest until he has killed Harry, makes it inevitable that Harry will have to kill Voldemort, or vice versa.
  • The British comedy Red Dwarf plays frequently with this notion. In series eight, a self-fulfilling prophecy started by the words "Rimmer will die in forty seconds of a heart attack from the shock of being told he's going to have a heart attack." In the Series 1 episode "Future Echoes", Lister learns that Cat will break a tooth. Believing that he can prevent this, he tackles Cat to stop him from biting a robotic fish. In the collision, he breaks Cat’s tooth.
  • Several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone used self-fulfilling prophecies. One example is "What's in the Box", in which a man sees himself on television killing his wife because he had an affair. He tries to confess to his wife, but ends up killing her in the ugly fight the confession triggers. Another episode of an occurrence of a self-fulfilling prophecy happens in the episode "A Most Unusual Camera" in which several petty criminals find a camera that takes pictures of the future. They then try to avoid their demise as was photographed, but in their effort of self preservation they end up killing each other and themselves.
  • On the Disney Channel children's television show "That's So Raven", a psychic teenager often makes predictions and accidentally fulfills them in an effort to stop them.
  • On the Fairly Oddparents episode "The Secret origin of Denzel Crocker!", Timmy goes back in time to stop Crocker from losing Cosmo and Wanda. At Crockers speech, Cosmo pulls the switch making the entire crowd hear Timmy telling Denzel about the future. This causes him to lose his fairies, causing the future.

Real-life examples

In January 1940, Pan Africanist Marcus Garvey suffered a stroke. Although he survived it, an obituary of Garvey was erroneously published in the Chicago Defender, describing him as "broke, alone and unpopular". Garvey was so shocked to read it that he suffered a second stroke and died — thus fulfilling the obituary.

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