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The Power (and Pain) of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Fast Company has an interesting article in their May 2007 issue (sorry--not available online at this point) by Chip and Dan Heath of Made to Stick fame on the power of self-fulfilling prophesies. Entitled "Success Can Make You Stupid," the Heath brothers write about how Hollywood pumps out bad films because they get into a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. What caught my eye, though, was this gem of a quote:

"HR is another hotbed of self-fulfilling prophecies. The researcher Albert King told a welding instructor at a vocational training center that five of his incoming students had unusually high aptitude. In fact, the students had been picked randomly. And yet random yielded reality. The "high potentials" were absent less often than other trainees, learned the basics in about half the usual time, and scored 10 points higher than others on a welding test. Even the other trainees noticed. They chose the five high potentials as their most preferred coworkers.

Is it possible high potentials across America perform better solely because, like movies, they have been given more attention and resources than they truly merit?"

Hell yeah, as this article on the Pygmalion effect (a fancy term for self-fulfilling prophecy) makes abundantly clear (read the article for some other great info on the effect):

In another classic experiment, Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson worked     with elementary school children from 18 classrooms. They randomly chose     20% of the children from each room and told the teachers they were "intellectual     bloomers."

They explained that these children could be expected to show remarkable     gains during the year. The experimental children showed average IQ gains     of two points in verbal ability, seven points in reasoning and four points     in over all IQ. The "intellectual bloomers" really did bloom!

So here's a question--or actually a few.

  • How often do our belief systems influence how we see our coworkers and how do they impact the resources with which we provide them and the ways in which we interact?
  • What about how we treat our clients? Are we making judgments that negatively influence the resources, supports and strategies we make available because we expect too much (or too little) of our customers?
  • Is the self-fulfilling prophecy influencing how we look at our "tried and true" organizational strategies? Is it possible that we're backing the wrong horses, putting resources where they actually are doing less good than if we really looked at the facts?
  • Are we short-changing our coworkers, our clients and our organizations because we rely on subjective beliefs rather than analyzing objective information?

I would argue in a lot of cases the answers to all of these questions are yes. Mental models are powerful things and breaking free of their influence has to be intentional and ongoing. It's a battle I fight with myself all of the time and one I wish I'd make greater progress toward winning.

The Heath's suggest that there's a moral in all of this for us to consider:

Question success. Success propagates backwards in our minds and bestows the glow of wisdom on our every decision. The irony of self-fulfilling prophecies is that even bad ideas end up looking right in the end, because we've salvaged them with good execution. And when bad ideas get reinforced, there are other consequences: The wrong movies get pushed.The wrong deals get funded. The wrong employees get advanced."

So is success making us stupid? And what can we do to break the cycle? 


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