The Power of Expectations: Teaching Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

09 Dec 2019 10:21 AM | Anonymous

By Maureen A. Coyle, Ph.D. Student, The Graduate Center, CUNY

One of the things I emphasize the most to my students is that our perceptions of our social world are influenced by our expectations. Thus, students should be mindful of how their background (e.g., family upbringing, previous education) and identities (e.g., ethnic identity, sexual orientation) shape their observations and responses. Students should also consider how their behaviors can influence how others respond to them. Sometimes our expectations lead us to act in such a way that our expectations become true. This is known as self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-fulfilling prophecies affect ourselves (like if I think I’m going to fail an exam and decide to not study, I will most likely fail that exam) and others (like if I think someone is rude, I may act abrasively to them which will lead that person to respond rudely, confirming my assumption).

Self-fulfilling prophecy is often covered in introductory chapters of Social Psychology. However, I think that instructors across disciplines should also consider covering this concept in their early classes. This is because self-fulfilling prophecy can impact students’ motivation, engagement, and performance in whatever courses they’re in. Below I will discuss a role-playing activity I use to help students understand self-fulfilling prophecy.

I present this to students as an “Expectations Activity” before defining self-fulfilling prophecy. I first ask for four volunteers who don’t mind wearing baseball caps. As students volunteer, I hand them a baseball cap. Each baseball cap has an index card pinned on the front side with a trait and another index card taped over it (this is so students are unaware of what trait they are labelled with). Once the students have the caps on their head, I remove the top index card taped down so that the rest of the volunteers and class can view the trait labels. The traits are smart, lazy, mean, and control freak.

The volunteers are instructed to treat each other according to the traits, assuming the traits are the true characteristics of the students wearing them. I tell students that this activity is like an episode of the TV show The Office where the employees had labels of different races on their foreheads and had to treat each other according to the stereotypes about those races. The students are given five tasks to work on together in front of the class. They must reach consensus on the task before moving to the next one. I display the tasks one at a time on a PowerPoint slide, so they are unaware of what the next tasks are and can focus on the current one.

The tasks are as follows:

(1) Indicate 4 best reasons for being a Brooklyn College student

(2) Decide on a new course to be offered at Brooklyn College

(3) Settle if comprehensive exams should be required to graduate

(4) Determine the #1 thing that must be changed at Brooklyn College

(5) Line up in order from least to most likable

I tell the volunteers that they cannot say the traits (or synonyms of the traits) in their interactions and can only respond to in ways they think are appropriate given the traits they’re labelled with. As they work together, the students typically turn to the ‘smart’ one and listen to whatever he/she says, which confirms that he/she is ‘smart.’ No one usually asks for the ‘lazy’ student’s opinion and this student usually speaks the least, which confirms his/her ‘laziness.’ The students are usually mean to the ‘mean’ one, which tends to make the ‘mean’ one respond in a mean way. Whatever the ‘control freak’ says is usually dismissed by the other students and he/she usually struggles to gain influence, which confirms that he/she is ‘controlling.’ After they finish the tasks, I ask them to guess their trait label. They often can figure out what trait they have based on the way the students treated them.

Afterwards, I define self-fulfilling prophecy and identify instances where self-fulfilling prophecies occurred in the previous activity. I bring up how self-fulfilling prophecies can affect our experiences in group projects (this is especially important to acknowledge if group work is a component of your course) and ask students where else they see evidence of self-fulfilling prophecies (students usually bring up things like first dates and exams). I then give them a survey asking them how effective the activity was in demonstrating self-fulfilling prophecy and how much each person acted in accordance with the trait they were labelled with. This is not only an assessment tool but helps me in the following class on research methods when introducing correlations.

In the following class, after defining positive correlation (when two variables covary in the same direction), I show students the correlation between how effective the activity was and how much students believed the volunteers acted in accordance with their label. Regardless of how effective students rated the activity, their effectiveness rating has a strong positive correlation with how much they believed the volunteers acted in accordance with their labels. Thus, this activity has a twofold benefit for teaching students social psychological concepts (self-fulfilling prophecy and positive correlation).

This activity has a lot of flexibility in terms of appropriate trait labels and what activities to solve as a group. Occasionally students’ behaviors don’t match their traits. When this happens, I explain how our expectations are not always right and will not always lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. Regardless of how much self-fulfilling prophecies occur in the activity, I like to end with highlighting the importance of recognizing our own biases so that negative expectations don’t lead to negative outcomes for ourselves and for those that we are interacting with. If you use this activity or variations of it, please feel free to let me know how it goes at!

Maureen A. Coyle is a PhD student in the Basic and Applied Social Psychology program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is also an adjunct instructor and lab manager of the Health, Emotion, and Relationships Team (HEART) Lab at Brooklyn College. Her research focus is the influence of media and technology on impression formation and relationship development. Maureen emphasizes the Writing to Learn strategy in her classroom and is completing Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) certification at Kingsborough Community College during the 2019-2020 academic year.

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