The Power and Limits of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

We regularly get questions about self-fulfilling prophecies, positive thinking, karma and the law of attraction. Do these phenomena really exist? How much value should we place on them?

Self Fulfilling Prophecies

A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when a person's beliefs or expectations about a particular outcome influence their behavior, making the expected outcome more likely (Merton, 1948). The fact that self-fulfilling prophecies exist has often been shown in research. Examples are studies into:

Limits to the self-fulfilling prophecy

Self-fulfilling prophecies can therefore play a role in our lives. But that role has its limits. Just think about the following things:
  1. other external factors also play a role, such as economic conditions, social structures and environmental factors. These factors may often play a more important role than the influence of one's beliefs or expectations.
  2. human behavior is extremely complex. In addition to self-fulfilling prophecies, countless other factors play a role, such as genetics, environment and personal experiences. So self-fulfilling prophecies are just one piece in the puzzle.
  3. people can sometimes actively resist self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, they can recognize a stereotype threat and go to great lengths to prevent it from becoming true.
Although self-fulfilling prophecies exist and are relevant, you should not attach too much importance to them. The latter seems to happen in some popular concepts such as the power of positive thinking, the law of attraction, and Karma. I'll run through them below.

The power of positive thinking

This is the belief that if we focus on our goals and maintain positive thoughts and emotions, we can positively change our lives and circumstances. Well-known propagators of this idea are Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, and Tony Robbins.
Positive thinking can be useful and important to some extent, but proponents of the concept often take the idea way too far. (As an aside, the fact that Donald Trump is a strong believer in it is reason enough for me to view it with skepticism). Important criticism of the concept is that it gets stuck in vagueness and can give the feeling that negative emotions are only bad (read also about toxic positivity.
Furthermore, it can lead to a lack of empathy for others who are struggling. It can also lead to a "blaming the victim" mentality, where people are blamed for their situation because of their negative thoughts.

The law of attraction

This idea was popularized by Rhonda Byrne's book “The Secret”. It states that positive or negative thoughts can manifest corresponding experiences in one's life. The central claim of the law of attraction is that by focusing your thoughts and intentions on what you want to achieve, the universe will conspire to bring it to you.
But is 'the universe' really focused on fulfilling our wishes? No! There is therefore no scientific evidence to support this claim (Wiseman, 2010). Believing in the law of attraction is more than pointless. It can also be harmful. It can lead to victim blaming, failure to act with purpose, and encouragement of magical thinking.


Karma is the belief that one's actions will lead to corresponding consequences in one's present or future life. The central belief of karma is that if one does good deeds, he will reap good consequences, and if he does bad deeds, he will suffer negative consequences.
While the Karma concept might inspire people to behave well, it can also be dangerous. It can promote the just-world fallacy, leading to victim blaming and discouragement of social change (Lerner & Miller, 1978).


While self-fulfilling prophecies demonstrate the potential influence of beliefs on outcomes, it is crucial to recognize their limitations and distinguish them from concepts such as the power of positive thinking, the law of attraction, and Karma.
These popular beliefs contain some truth to some extent, but they are simplistic and lack empirical evidence. Believing in them can lead to harmful consequences for individuals and society.