ExpectationsPerception and RealityTrust and Control

Believing is Seeing

The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy is that sometimes, for better or worse, we can make something true simply by believing in it. This basic concept goes by a wide variety of names such as the expectancy effect, the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect, the placebo effect, the law of attraction, and the secret. Some people would like to believe that this phenomenon is an absolute law that can be harnessed to control events, create wealth, cure the sick, or alter reality. However, if this were true, then every intense doubt, fear, or insecurity would also become real. Every panic attack would be fatal, every hypochondriac would get cancer, and every airplane would crash during take-off.

Fortunately, we are not so powerful that we can create an event simply by willing it or fearing it. Not every prayer gets answered, not every wish gets granted, and most fears go unrealized. This is a good thing. Imagine the chaos of a world inhabited by such omnipotent gods, each with his or her own beliefs, biases, and wants. Such a world would surely be torn apart by all the conflicting intentions!

While the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy is not an absolute law, it is a real phenomenon that shapes our experiences. It does so by building upon our most basic beliefs and expectations about ourselves, other people, life, and the world around us. The mechanism is really quite simple…

  1. We expect that life will be a certain way.
  2. We look for evidence to support our expectation.
  3. We notice things that validate our expectation.
  4. We dismiss evidence to the contrary.
  5. We collect evidence until we feel we have proof.
  6. We believe that our expectation has been fulfilled.

This mechanism won’t crash an airplane, but it can easily ruin your day… or make your day. It might even be capable of killing you, albeit indirectly. Whatever you expect to see is what you will look for, and what you look for is what you will tend to find. In this way, both the optimist and the pessimist are inevitably proven right, within the realm of their own perceptions. Put in the simplest terms, believing is seeing.

We like to think of ourselves as objective observers of the world around us, as observers of truth, but the truth is that our perceptions of the world are wrapped in layer upon layer of subjectivity. Medical researchers realize this danger in their own work and use double-blind studies to control for their own expectations (i.e. the observer-expectancy effect) and the expectations of their patients (i.e. the subject-expectancy effect or placebo effect). Unfortunately, most of us are not so cautious. We plow forward with our expectations and subjective realities, all the while believing that what we see is the objective and unchangeable truth. This error of perception may seem harmless, but for those who feel trapped in an ugly reality, it is a source of great suffering. It may also be a primary cause of human conflicts and wars.

By understanding the mechanism of the self-fulfilling prophecy, we may be able to challenge its effects, but we must first learn to set aside our blind commitment to our subjective realities. We must accept the idea that most of what we see is not objective truth. If we can do that, perhaps we can learn to shape our realities after all. Perhaps we can become semi-omnipotent, at least at the level of perception.

We may not be all-powerful gods, but we are not powerless victims of fate either. The secret to our true power is held in three little words: believing is seeing. For those who can unlock the depths of this idea and set aside their rigid perception of truth, there is an opportunity to escape the shackles of fate and destiny, an opportunity to choose and be free.