The self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when a group or individual is labelled, and as a result their behaviour begins to resemble the expected behaviour. There are a number of reasons why a label may come to be fulfilled. Firstly, the label can affect how the labelled individual is treated by others. Others are more likely to notice behaviour that conforms to the label, while ignoring behaviour that does not fit the label. For example, the police may be more likely to stop and search Black teenagers than White teenagers, due to stereotyped labelling of Black teenagers as ‘aggressive’. They may ignore a White teenager who is acting suspiciously but stop a Black teenager who is behaving in the same way. This can then lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy, because more Black teenagers will be found with illegal items, due to being stopped and searched more often.
However, many individuals are labelled negatively but do not fulfil the expectation given by the label. For example, despite negative labelling in the media, not all Black teenagers show aggressive or antisocial behaviour.
Jahoda investigated the link between the meaning of names in Ashanti culture and the likelihood of showing criminal behaviour. In Ashanti culture the males born on a Monday are given a name that means ‘peaceful nature’, while those born on a Wednesday are given a name that means ‘aggressive nature’. Jahoda examined court records and found that males born on a Wednesday had a higher arrest rate than those born on a Wednesday.
This study strongly supports the self-fulfilling prophecy theory because the meaning behind Ashanti names can be seen as a label. Wednesday-born males may have treated with fear or suspicion, leading them to respond defensively and aggressively to others and thus fulfil the expectation.
Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study also supports the self-fulfilling prophecy theory. They found that when teachers were given positive expectations for a number of randomly chosen students, those students’ IQ scores improved significantly more than those who were not labelled at all.
This study supports the self-fulfilling prophecy because the positive expectations held by the teachers were fulfilled by the students. This may have been because teachers treated the labelled students differently, for example, by providing more challenging work to stretch their thinking. However, the study was based in the field of education, and therefore may not be applicable to the field of crime, and therefore may not explain how labelling can cause criminal behaviour.
Another study that examined the effect of expectations on future behaviour was carried out by Madon. She investigated the effects of mothers’ expectations of their child’s future alcohol use as teenagers. She controlled for other factors that may lead to teenager drinking, such as social class and past drinking habits, and found that 52% of the relationship between a mother’s expectations and her child’s future alcohol use is down to accurate expectations and 48% is down to self-fulfilling effects. She also found that children with high self-esteem were more likely to be affected by their mother’s expectations, and that positive expectations were more likely to affect children than negative expectations.
This study suggests that a person’s self-esteem may determine whether or not the self-fulfilling prophecy occurs, which means that an alternative explanation may be needed to explain the criminal behaviour of those with low self-esteem. One alternative explanation is the social learning theory, which states that individuals are likely to imitate the behaviour of role models who they share similar characteristics with, or who are in positions of power. This may explain criminal behaviour, which could be the result of violence in the media being imitated by individuals in real life.