I think, therefore you are: Self-fulfilling prophecies and the laws of physics

Buddha said, ‘With our thoughts, we make our world’.

This hit home for me the other day when I met up with an old gym buddy I hadn’t seen in years. She’s not a positive person, but she’s had some awful stuff happen in her life, so I’ve always thought her crappy outlook was understandable. But something happened to make me wonder about that.

We were in the gym café talking about a newly advertised class (‘Core’, for you gymbos out there) and decided to find out when it was starting at our club. As we headed over to the receptionist, my friend said, ‘Oh it’s her – she’s such a bitch’. 

Now in the six or so years I’d been going to this gym, I’d never seen the person in question be anything other than helpful and pleasant.

Anyway, I asked about the class. The receptionist said they didn’t have the new timetable yet, so to check again in a few days. This seemed a bit last-minute given all the advertising, but as the timetable wasn’t her responsibility, I thanked her and turned to leave.

My friend asked in a loud and irritated voice why the timetable wasn’t available. They should have it, she told the receptionist; it was ridiculous not to have the information when the class was promoted all over the gym.

To my surprise, the receptionist replied rudely, dismissing my friend and turning her back to deal with other members. I’d never see her like that before. It was Newton’s third law in action: an equal and opposite reaction.

I walked home that day thinking about how powerful we are in our worlds – how much influence we have on those around us, and through them, on the events of our lives. My friend lives in a world where people are rude – it’s true, I saw it for myself. And she helps to create that world every time she opens her mouth.

Self-fulfilling prophecies.

Psychologists call these interactions self-fulfilling prophecies. Your set of beliefs (schema) about a person colours the information you seek from them, the conclusions you draw about them, and even the behaviours you elicit from them. I think, therefore you are (a bitch, in the gym example).
This was beautifully demonstrated in a study by Snyder Tanke & Berscheid (1977)* where male college students were shown a (fake) photo of either an attractive or unattractive woman before chatting with her on the phone for 10 minutes.

Interesting result: the students chatting to ‘attractive’ women spoke more warmly than did those talking to ‘unattractive’ women (based on recordings heard later).

Fascinating result: students who hadn’t seen the photos judged the ‘attractive’ women to be more likeable. Being treated as if they were attractive seemed to make the women act attractive!

Such results have intriguing macro-implications for social stereotypes and prejudices, for international relations and world politics.

But think how much power it gives each of us, every day. How we think about people consciously and unconsciously affects how we act toward them, which in turn affects how they respond to us. That means if we change our thoughts, we can start to change our world.

Now that’s a lot of power.

* Snyder, M., Tanke, E. D., & Berscheid, E. (1977). Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 35, 656-666.


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