The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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By Dhanya Nair

A large part of my summer is currently being spent on taking a course about counseling children and adolescents; I often walk down memory lane as I read about concepts like attachment and modeling. And, I think frequently about the power vested in adults. People often refrain that childhood is the most carefree period in one’s life, however I beg to differ. Children face the immense task of initiation into the adult world. There are constant pressures on them to toe the line, to be a “good” kid, to get along with peers, to be an all-rounder…the list is endless!

I am reminded of one of my classmates from school in India as I write this piece. The average class size in my school was about 30 and the class would be firmly divided on the basis of grades- the “good” and “poor” students. The “poor” students would consistently remain “poor” and any behavioral indiscretion on their part would mean banishment to the corner spot in the classroom where they would stick out like a sore thumb. I guess the idea behind the punishment was to shame the student into obedience. One of the “poor” students happened to be the aforementioned classmate, who also had the reputation of being a bully as he routinely got into fights and overpowered most of his opponents. He was more often than not banished to the corner spot in the classroom from where he would make faces at the rest of us or doodle idly. However, one day, things changed for him, our seventh grade science teacher announced that he was incredibly bright. We were stunned and stared at her in disbelief when she told us that she had discovered he was a quick learner while coaching him for a test. After that point, he did not seem to get into as many fights. And years later, I discovered that he had secured an engineering degree from an Ivy League school in the States. I can’t help but think that my science teacher’s discovery of my classmate’s “hidden” potential could have well started him off on his journey to academic excellence.

The “self-fulfilling prophecy” concept in social psychology refers to the phenomenon of behavior being influenced by prior expectations. I believe that my classmate’s better academic performance in middle school and high school was positively affected by the altered perception which others had gained of him. Very often, children become victims of the self-fulfilling prophecy not just because others around them expect them to act in certain set ways, but also because they internalize messages received from these external sources. Labeling in schools as well as homes can have a lasting impact on children’s development. A “lazy” child will be seen as a sluggard no matter what she/he does, and the lore will be passed around to everyone in the child’s life leading her/him to internalize that message.

Gender-priming, also, I believe, strengthens the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. Why is it that women in developed and developing nations alike are not well-represented in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professions? Is it because society keeps propagating the myth of men being good at science and math and women being good at languages? There is optimistic news from the scientific fraternity now about female performance on math and science tests, it seems like in societies where more gender equality exists, females perform as well or nearly as well as males in math and science. And, now, on that happy note, I need to treat myself to some coconut French toast!

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