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self-fulfilling

[ self-fool-fil-ing ]
/ ˈsɛlf fʊlˈfɪl ɪŋ /
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adjective
characterized by or bringing about self-fulfillment.
happening or brought about as a result of being foretold, expected, or talked about: a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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Origin of self-fulfilling

First recorded in 1950–55
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

ABOUT THIS WORD

What does self-fulfilling prophecy mean?

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to be true due to the behavior (including the act of predicting it) of the believer.

Self-fulling, here, means “brought about as a result of being foretold or talked about,” while prophecy refers to the prediction.

Where did the term self-fulfilling prophecy come from?

Predictions about the future are often little more than guesses based on the best information available. A self-fulfilling prophecy, on the other hand, comes true precisely because someone thought it up and predicted it. Due to their own biases, the predictor may unconsciously take actions that cause the prediction to happen, for better or worse.

An everyday example can be found in sports. If a player enters a game certain that they will lose, it can cause a psychological feedback loop where he plays the game poorly, causing the loss predicted and resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The concept of an individual’s expectation of success or failure in causing their own victory or downfall has long been the subject of literature and legend. Use of the term self-fulfilling prophecy, however, goes back to at least 1832.

Credit for popularizing the term, and strictly defining it, goes to American sociologist Robert Merton. In his 1948 essay titled “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” Merton described the concept as “A false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.” Merton was directly inspired by the famous theorem of fellow sociologist William Thomas, who wrote “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Following this, the phrase (as defined by Robert Merton) was used often by sociologists. Today, the term appears in everything from essays and literature to popular music and casual conversation. The term, while common, is still considered a learned one.

How to use the term self-fulfilling prophecy

Historically, a self-fulfilling prophecy was contrasted with a self-defeating prophecy, the former signifying a positive outcome and the latter negative. Self-fulfilling prophecy now covers both situations, though the phrase is generally reserved for undesirable experiences and therefore carries a negative connotation.

When discussed in academic or technical contexts, self-fulfilling prophecy is sometimes shortened to SFP.

The phrase is now widely used outside of such formal settings. In colloquial speech and writing, self-fulfilling prophecy is often used less strictly as a way of explaining some fault or failure in the face of previous warning signs (e.g., “I told you so”).

More examples of self-fulfilling prophecy:

“That a man who was for many months Trump’s right-hand man would brazenly give out such doom-laden predictions is remarkable enough. But letting the world know of it via Wolff could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
—Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, January 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use self-fulfilling in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for self-fulfilling

self-fulfilling

adjective
(of an opinion or prediction) borne out because it is expected to be true or to happena self-fulfilling prophecy
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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