The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

How can a deeper understanding of the social ecosystem inform our current socio-political predicament?

In 1968, as the American society was grappling with the assassination of Martin Luther King, fighting the referendum on the Vietnam war, and Richard Nixon was at the dawn of his Presidency, the students at an elementary school in California sat for a specialised IQ test. Presented by psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, the test claimed to help identify “intellectual bloomers”, i.e. students who are likely to show a spurt in their academic performance over the next year. And indeed, it did. When the psychologists came back next year to check the progress of the students, the ones they had picked out had indeed risen to the top of their class. However, the success of this experiment had proved something completely different.

In reality, the test presented to the students was a standard IQ test that was not equipped to judge or predict a student’s future score. Similarly, the students they claimed to have identified as intellectual bloomers, who were all average performers at the time of the test, had been chosen at random as well, with no scientific basis. What Rosenthal and Jacobson were actually testing was their hypothesis of the Pygmalion effect. The two psychologists had hypothesised that expectations play a significant role in shaping our self-image. In other words, what people expect from us influences both how we see ourselves, as well as our resultant actions. This could impact an individual both positively as well as negatively – that is, if people expected us to be better, smarter, stronger, etc., then in all likelihood, we would develop all these qualities; but if what was expected from us were negative attributes, then there is a high probability that we would internalise them.

In this case, though the students were not informed of their test results, the teachers had been made aware of the students likely to improve their scores. Rosenthal predicted that this had led the teachers to change their behaviour and expectation from these students and present a more positive and encouraging disposition towards them. The expectations of the teachers had thus driven the students to perform better, turning the psychologists’ predictions into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But of course, the theory is not absolute. Other people’s expectations cannot singularly dictate an individual’s attributes or actions. In fact, Rosenthal’s experiment had been more successful with younger children than with older ones, which clearly shows that as we grow older, into more complex individuals, our personality and practice are influenced by a multiplicity of factors. Psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s began to explore this multiplicity, and the social identity theory emerged as one of the most prominent theories of the time.

The social identity theory builds on the fact that, more often than not, human beings tend to seek associations or membership into various communities and groups in society (take for instance being part of a family, an organisation, a nation, or even a football fan club). Psychologists studying the dynamics of such associations, especially intergroup behaviour, suggested that the public image of the group we associate with influences our self-image and esteem. This happens because the group acts as our source of identity in the larger society. Even if our inclusion into that group is arbitrary, i.e. based on no systematic selection or choice, we tend to develop a strong sense of belonging and loyalty towards it. For instance, even in experiments where individuals were distributed into groups through a completely randomised system, they invariably developed a strong bond with members of their own group, focussing more on the in-group similarities and out-group differences. In fact, the test groups would proactively try to maximise these distinctions, even when this did not result in any personal or collective gain. In this way, the “us” and “them” divide is created, first in our minds, and subsequently in the society at large. Because these groups become our source of pride, we adopt different strategies to maintain the stature of our group, such as inflating or enhancing its image by bringing the others down (take for example passionately praising or defaming a family, an organisation, a nation, or even a football fan club). This phenomenon has been observed across history, where discriminations on the basis of caste, class, gender, races, ethnicity, etc. have led to a number of conflicts of different scales. Even as various movements for equality and equitable living have emerged through a compassionate understanding of these tendencies, we have also simultaneously seen the their manipulation leading to violent discrimination and injustice. Decades after such theories have revealed the possibility of rising above our petty (constructed) discriminations, we see cases of ill-treatment of rag pickers, the suicide of Rohit Vemula, or even communal violence based solely on one’s association with an animal. What drives such violence in human beings, blinding us to humanity, empathy and compassion?

Harvey Whitehouse, a leading anthropologist at Oxford University, has attempted to answer this question. Having spent years studying the psychology of violent extremism, he has come to focus his study on religion-related violence, and has pioneered the cognitive sciences of religion. Through his research, he has moved beyond the social identity theory (which still maintains a degree of individuality) to present the theory of fusion.

“Social identity theorists have shown that making group alignments salient has a depersonalising effect. But with fusion it’s different. If you are fused then any attack on your group feels like a personal attack. According to our theory, the reason people carry out suicide attacks and other acts of terrorism is because they think that in doing so they are defending themselves and their group  (which for them are really the same thing),” Whitehouse wrote in an essay for Inter-Actions. Why do they feel fused with their group to such an extent that they would protect it through violence? That, again, is a self-fulfilling prophecy (in a way, at least).

Whitehouse and his team of researchers travelled to Libya in 2011 and carried out interviews with two types of revolutionaries – the frontline fighters and the logistical support team. “We found that all of them were very highly fused with family, fellow fighters, and those from other battalions they’d never met. In contrast, they were not fused with supporters of the revolution who were not members of battalions. In other words, it was not sufficient to be on the same side simply in terms of beliefs or ideology,” Whitehouse wrote. What bonded these individuals together was a shared experience of violence, grief, or loss. Violence inspired more violence. Loss motivated them to protect what was left, even if it meant taking on violent strategies. The more violence they were subject to, the more the sense of ‘civility’ was lost. When they were asked to pick only one of the groups they had mentioned as being fused with, they picked their fellow combatants over family, friends, or their logistical support team. Having been subject to the violence of this conflict, they felt more connected to the fighters facing it with them, as opposed to their non-violent, familial spaces. And we still think violence is the solution.

So, our psyche is wired to target members of the ‘other’ community just because; we have a tendency to form homogeneous opinions about the ‘other’; and we are most likely to retaliate with violence when threatened by violence. By perpetuating stereotypes and discrimination (domestic helps and rag pickers are disposable and exploitable), adopting discriminatory policies (all Kashmiris are terrorists, so lock them down), or using violence and oppression (turning a blind eye to lynchings and Dalits suicides/murders), we are not only writing a self-fulfilling prophecy, but also failing humanity and its potential.

Carl Rogers, the father of counselling psychology, argued that people have two basic psychological needs – positive regard from other people, and self-actualisation. The first deals with a sense of unconditional love, affection, trust, respect, and other such attributes that an individual may get from family, friends or other associates at any time in their life. The second deals with the freedom to explore and develop our own ideas, interests and talents – to actualise or make real what drives us. The lack of either or both, he said,  can lead to psychological damage and neurotic behaviours.

It is imperitive, at this point, that we realise and acknowledge these needs of the human beings that make up our society, as well as the deep, inescapable connections within our social ecosystem. Instead of suppressing and trying to mould the social fabric of our country and the world, we need to come to terms with its complexity and allow for alternative solutions to emerge. These realisation were beginning to emerge in the 1980s in the world at large. That was the time relativist theories – which took away the hegemony of the white mans’ worldview to acknowledge those of other cultures, sexes, races and genders – were gaining widespread prominence in academia and the society. The threat this emergence posed to the status quo, as well as the complications it presented in matter of social governance led to a rise in support for conservationists across the globe – whether it was Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, the majority started looking to them for refuge, and a way back to their simpler, privileged, self-serving world.

We seem to be entering (or already living through) such times again, when complexity is leading to questions we have no answers to. Instead of facing the problems head on, deep diving into research, knowledge, compassionate communication and collaboration, we are retreating into our cocoons of comfort – of the unjust and the oppressive.

We must, at this point, go back to our roots, for sure – roots that show us how diversity was respected, how multiculturalism was encouraged, and how equitable living can be achieved. We have to go back to the hard work of figuring out the problems of today, because they are certainly tough, and have no easy, singular answers. But only by accepting and acknowledging these can we truly move forward from times of ecological and social collapse, to times of sustainability, harmony and peace.

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