Making Pigs Fly
[Written in January 2003 for the January/February issue of The Voyageur. Copyright © 2003 Peter de Jager.]
"You'll see it when you believe it!" That might sound like a snippet from some corny motivational keynote presentation, but nevertheless it contains more than just a few grains of truth. Sometimes building the future requires nothing more than simply believing it will happen. It's called a self-fulfilling prophecy, or the Pygmalion effect.
Perhaps the best example is a run on a bank. If enough people believe a bank is going to fail, then it fails. A bank is a fragile economical balancing act, supported primarily by the blind trust of the depositors. Remove that trust and it collapses under the weight of massed withdrawal slips.
To bring down a modern bank, all you need is a willing partner in the global media. A few well-planted contradictory rumours, an earful of sound bites, a video clip of a crowd of people storming a bank…and, of course, a handful of less-than-convincing denials from bank and government officials, and you have the makings of a financial disaster. Start the campaign at the beginning of the weekend; let boil until the opening bell on Monday; sit back and watch the future unfold.
Of course, if you can make things fall, you can also make things fly. The dot-com fiasco was an example of far too many people believing that there was an easy way to get rich. The result? Stock prices soar for a while, and then finally the bubble bursts. If you got out early then you cleaned up. If you got out late then you got cleaned out.
The dot-com example is a good one not because it is a good example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but because its failure highlights the internal details of how a self-fulfilling prophecy works.
That is, if you believed the dot-com prophecy of a new economy (money out of nothing) then you could drive the stock prices through the roof, but that behaviour could not by itself generate the prophesied profits. Sooner or later there's no one willing to pay more for the stock than you paid for it because the companies aren't making what they said they would…and the prices start to fall.
Better examples of positive self-fulfilling prophecies are those explored in 1957 by Robert Merton, a professor of sociology at Columbia University. In his book Social Theory and Social Structure he explained how when teachers were told that a particular set of students had a high IQ, they were treated as "good students," and their marks increased. When the teachers were told that other students had low IQ, the marks decreased.
In both cases, the teachers modified their behaviour towards the students. They praised the "good" ones and did not "waste time" with those with the alleged low IQs. Those who were praised naturally did their best to get more praise, and those who had less teacher attention did not learn as well. Merton said the phenomenon occurs when "a false definition of the situation evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true."
Of course, there's a flip side to all of this. Equally valid is the concept of a self-defeating prophecy: a prediction that ensures, by the behaviour it generates, that it will not come true. The strident cry of, "Johnny! Stop running with that stick in your hand, or you'll put your eye out!" is familiar to any child or parent. At first glance, the purpose of the warning is to make you believe that running with sharp sticks will have dire consequences. The intent, however, is to get you to stop running…and to avoid the consequences. It's all a matter of belief.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are both handy tools and insidious traps. Used properly, self-reinforcing behavioural loops can generate desirable results, but those same loops can keep a person with depression from getting out of bed in the morning…and the next morning, and the one after that. We inadvertently create the futures we believe are predestined.
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