In the aftermath of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States many conservative leaders, disappointed with the election results, blamed their poor showing on mail-in voting laws in key states:
“We will never win elections in states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, or Michigan so long as there’s mass mail-in voting and ballot harvesting. We will never be able to overcome the voter fraud.”
If I were a journalist I’d follow up with a simple question:
“Given that, how do you win an election in those states in order to change mail-in voting laws?”
This is a succinct demonstration of a self-fulfilling prophecy:
- Political leaders claim they can’t win elections due to unfair current laws / “rigged” game;
- Some proportion of their followers believe this and therefore refuse to participate;
- As a result of depressed participation volunteer activity, donations, and ultimately voter turnout decrease; and
- The group loses elections - prophecy fulfilled: “we lost because of the rules.”
The “rigged election” whine is an inherently losing mentality - but in defeat lies something easily attainable and almost as valuable to the beholder: validating a deeply held grievance.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are common and you almost certainly believe in some yourself. They have three components:
- A challenging goal - winning an election, losing weight, or getting a promotion at work;
- An unfalsifiable rationalization for why this goal can’t be obtained - “I’ll never be able to lose the weight because I have a slow metabolism” or “it’s impossible for me to get promoted at work because my boss is an idiot;” and
- A payoff: the satisfaction of being “right” in the end.
An unfalsifiable rationalization:
- Can be “validated” through inaction (because: unfalsifiable);
- Shifts the responsibility to an external locus of control; and
- “Fulfills the prophecy” by simply maintaining the status quo.
“Because I believe it’s impossible to lose weight due to forces beyond my control, I won’t take any of the necessary steps to lose weight, thus I never lose the weight and was right all along.”
It doesn’t even matter if the rationalization is utterly specious - “I won’t lose the weight because a cabal of elves have cursed me.” I don’t have to prove that the cabal of elves exists - the fact that I can’t lose weight is very evidence that I’m cursed!
Therein lies the magic and the power of self-fulfilling prophecies: they are an effective bulwark at deflecting responsibility and failure risk away from the beholder and their fulfillment “proves” it.
And once we recognize that self-fulfilling prophecies are myths we create to avert risk of failures or justify staying our comfort zones - then we can begin to change our thinking and do something about them.
Accomplishing challenging goals requires extraordinary effort, discipline, and patience to achieve; requires you to be clear-eyed about your present and past performance; and requires deep, regular commitment to come to fruition. Most brains don’t want their human hosts to take on personal risk or any effort beyond what’s necessary to survive, thus it pairs a rationalization, a status quo prediction, and the soothing vindication of that prediction being “right” to stop you from even trying.
Why commit to winning when it’s easier, comfortable, and righteous to inject hopelessness where it doesn’t belong instead?