Alexander the Great – Alexander’s mother believed that Alexander was the son of Zeus (Father of Greek Gods and men) and that he was a superhuman destined for greatness from conception. True to the belief, he became a God like King and conquered the world.
Buddha (Siddhartha) – Legend has it that, on the night Siddhartha was conceived, Queen Maya dreamt that a white elephant with six white tusks entered her and she believed in a divine conception. During the birth celebrations, the seer Asita prophesied that the child would either become a great King or a great holy man and true to the prophecy, Siddhartha became Buddha a holy enlightened man.
Dalai Lama – Upon the death of the reigning Dalai Lama, High Lamas consult their Oracle and through ritualistic practices search for the reincarnation of their Spiritual Master. The current 14th Dalai Lama was appointed as Tibetan’s spiritual leader at the age of 2 years. He surely grew up to be a great learned spiritual leader winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and is still leading Tibet’s efforts for autonomy,
These are just a few commonly known documented examples of how prophecies and metaphysical phenomenon accurately predicted the future outcome for the three men mentioned above. Let us examine a) if these men were born for greatness through supernatural force or b) if they became great because they were ‘believed’ to be born for greatness.
There is very little you and I can do to examine the former. Here we are examining if beliefs and expectations have any significant role in defining the eventual outcome.
‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’ also known as Pygmalion Effect is a topic of study in Social Psychology and it purports to explain how beliefs, thoughts and perceptions shape realities.
“A Self Fulfilling Prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to come true due to the simple fact that the prediction was made. This happens because our beliefs influence our actions.”
In other words the prophecy or prediction is false to begin with but is made true by the person’s actions. It is the tendency for foster behavior that is consistent with the expectation.
There are many experiments conducted to demonstrate the phenomenon. In one of the best-known examples, teachers were told (falsely) that certain students in their class were “bloomers” on the verge of dramatic intellectual development. When the students were tested eight months later, the “special” students outperformed their peers, fulfilling the prediction that had been made about them. During the intervening period, the teachers behaved in ways that facilitated the students’ intellectual development, by giving them increased attention and support and setting higher goals for them.
This video by Philip Zimbardo provides a good overview of the said experiment and some additional learnings –
This simply shows as parents, our thoughts and beliefs are constantly shaping the future of our children, they just grow up to the expectations we consciously or unconsciously hold of them.
Young Thomas Edison was assessed by his school and teachers as slow in learning or having ‘addled’ brain. However his mother rejected the assessment and strongly believed that young Thomas was born special and given his insatiable curiosity, has great potential. Edison later writes – “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint”.
Before we start to complain about our kids’ eating habits, sleeping patterns, lack of interest in studies, interest to play video games, etc. let us remind ourselves that in our complaints and compliments we are creating their futures and giving them expectations to live up to. It is no surprise that a 2 years old baby boy becoming the world-renowned Dalai Lama, a prince becoming a holy man or the King of the world is purely an interplay of unshakeable belief, consistency in setting the right expectations and fostering desirable behavior to meet such expectations.
Below is an excerpt from a research document that exhaustively explains how Pygmalion effect occurs in the Management environment.
People (pupils, subordinates, and so on) tend to act in accordance with the expectation of others (teachers, managers, and so on). In particular, the former may, to some degree, internalize the higher expectations placed on them by the latter, and then act in ways to fulﬁll those expectations. A pioneering work by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) shows, through their experimental research, that a teacher’s expectation for a pupil’s intellectual competence can come to serve as an educational self-fulfilling prophecy, and names this phenomenon the Pygmalion effect after Greek myths. Livingston (1969) discusses the Pygmalion effect in managerial setting. He argues that a number of case studies and experiments reveal the following:
- “What managers expect of subordinates and the way they treat them largely determine their performance and career progress.”
- “A unique characteristic of superior managers is the ability to create high performance expectations that subordinates fulﬁll.”
- “Less effective managers fail to develop similar expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suﬀers.”
- Subordinates, more often than not, appear to do what they believe they are expected to do.”
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy or Pygmalion effect is similar to the ‘Placebo Effect’ that is widely known in the medical field. Phenomenal health benefits are derived by just administering a substance with no medical effects such as saline water, sugar pills, etc. Placebo Effect clearly demonstrates the power of thought/belief to create positive health benefits.
Let me write a bit about a lesser known phenomenon known as ‘Nocebo Effect’. This is the reverse of the Placebo Effect i.e. a medically neutral substance create harmful effects purely due to the power of thought/belief. Below are few documented cases –
- In a study, women who believed they are prone to heart disease were nearly four times as likely to die as women with similar risk factors who didn’t believe. It’s not because these women had poorer diets, higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, or stronger family histories than the women who didn’t get heart disease. The only difference between the two groups was their beliefs.
- A young man who had been in treatment for depression for some time hit a low point after his girlfriend left him. He took an entire bottle of his medication. As soon as he finished the bottle, he realized he’d made a mistake. At the hospital, grievously ill, he lingered near death. He couldn’t breathe. His blood pressure was dangerously low. Later the doctors told him that he was originally given placebo and he was in no danger and later he recovered.
- In the 1970s, doctors diagnosed a man with end-stage liver cancer, and told him he had just a few months to live. Though the patient died in the predicted time, an autopsy showed the doctors had been mistaken. There was a tiny tumor, but it had not spread. It seemed the doctors’ prognosis had been a death curse.
Does this phenomenon work 100% of the time? If I think of myself as a billionaire, would I become a billionaire?
‘Belief’ appears to be critical in the functioning of this phenomenon. Not just a conjecture but a genuine rock solid belief beyond any doubts. Consistency of reinforcement of that belief is also critical. Obviously reasonableness and availability of means, methods and resources are also critical in setting expectations. In the teacher student experiment noted above, if the teachers were told that at the end of the year identified students will become billionaires, the experiment would have miserably failed.
Key Learnings –
Our success and failures are largely dependent on our beliefs and beliefs of the people who hold influence on our lives i.e. Parents, Friends, Spouses, Teachers, Managers, Doctors, etc. It’s important to critically examine who we want to believe in, the outcome of the belief and also perhaps wisely control how much influence we want others to exert on us.
This phenomenon reminds me of an old Sanskrit quote from the Vedas that says- “Yad Bhaavam Tad Bhavati”. It simply means ‘you become what you think’ or ‘thoughts become reality’, hence being aware of our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes is of utmost importance because they may just be shaping the world into exactly what we want to see.