The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: How We Create Our Own Conflicts

…And How We Might Stop Doing So

Why does an athlete who languishes on one team flourish when traded to another? Why does a move from one school to another result in a student’s change from mediocrity to discovery of new inner resources? Why do the police and the communities they serve often remain at odds? Why are my negotiations with “difficult” adversaries usually unproductive? The answers may lie in a basic–but often overlooked–principle of our hard-wiring: the self-fulfilling prophecy. How might understanding this circuitry improve our negotiations and mediations?

Self-fulfilling prophecy, like its first cousin stereotyping, is a species of the phenomenon of selective perception, one of a number of psychological traps documented by Nobel Prize winning cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman over 30 years ago.  Self-fulfilling prophecy happens when, for example, we begin a negotiation with set expectations of our adversary’s behavior, and act on our expectations of that behavior so as to actually trigger them in a way that confirms our expectations. Simply put, if you are negotiating with a lawyer whom you believe to be hostile, you likely will disregard his friendliness or attempts at cooperative behavior as an attempt to manipulate you. You will become defensive. He in turn will perceive your defensiveness as antagonism, and the negotiation will slide downhill from there.

Tversky and Kahneman learned that whenever we encounter a new situation we are often overwhelmed in our ability to process it. The only way to interpret new and often conflicting information is to instinctively form a hypothesis about the situation and then organize what we see and hear in light of that hypothesis. This hypothesis acts as a “filter” for reality that automatically screens out inconsistent information and signals. This then reinforces the correctness of our initial hypothesis. Stereotyping works the same way–when we meet a new person we fall back on our previous beliefs about how people “like that” behave. Our selective perception of that person then colors our behavior in a way that reinforces our stereotype.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is one reason, I believe, that a change in “perceptual environment”, whether for an athlete, a student, or even one’s family members, often leads to a change in behavior. We are no longer bound by the negative thought patterns that chained us to unproductive behaviors. “New perceptions” of us by fresh personalities enable discovery of untapped resources within. Likewise, failure to change perception condemns us to stereotypical behavior. That is one reason why, on a macro level, until police and community change their perceptions of one another, distrust will continue to reign.

How can we make our selective perception work for us in negotiation and mediation and not generate counter-productive self-fulfilling prophecies? First, accept the reality of the phenomenon. Much as we lawyers pride ourselves on our “rationality,” we are more often governed by inherited, unconscious thought processes. Second, recognize that what you perceive as reality is your reality and not that of your adversary. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us believe that others see the world just as we do. Not so. Try to step into your adversary’s world, and see how the problem looks from her perspective. Third, have a plan for your negotiation and mediation, making concessions in orderly, pre-planned fashion, not in a knee-jerk, emotional reaction to your adversary’s moves. The first step in successful negotiation is formulating a plan. Surprisingly, too many negotiators fail to take this first and fundamental step. Fourth, learn to consciously recognize and effectively manage your own thoughts and emotions. We are not our thoughts and emotions. Try to cultivate a bigger and more accurate picture of yourself and the larger “reality.”

Properly understood, self-fulfilling prophecy need not tie us to the same old, negative, and unproductive reactions. Enlarging our perception and adherence to an effective negotiating strategy divorced from the self-fulfilling prophecy can alter our negotiating and mediating tactics for the better.