Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

Using Self-Fulfilling Prophecies to Your Advantage

Why "fake it 'til you make it" is good advice

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Cycle
How the self-fulfilling prophecy works
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it is already true. New Agers call this The Law of Attraction (see, for example, Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 self-help book The Secret), but there’s really nothing mystical about it. Our expectation that we will see a particular outcome changes our behavior, which shapes the way others see us. In turn, others provide the feedback we’ve set ourselves up to get, which serves to reinforce the original belief.

Let’s say, for example, that I’m going to a party where I don’t know many people. If I believe I don’t make a good first impression, or I worry that nobody will talk to me, I will probably enter the party acting awkward, anxious, and standoffish. In turn, people are likely to interact with me with less enthusiasm, or they may ignore or shun me. Which only reinforces my belief that I’m not good with people I don’t know.

If, by contrast, I enter the party believing that I’m good with people I don’t know and expecting to make new friends, I’m likely to be outgoing, engaging, and less apt to take a cold shoulder personally. As a result, people will likely respond amiably to my friendliness and I may indeed make new friends.

So that old “fake it ‘til you make it” advice is pretty darn good advice.

Though many writers are solitary creatures, we are just as susceptible to self-fulfilling prophecies as anyone else. Our behaviors towards others impact others’ behaviors toward us. 

Let’s take the querying process, for example. Let’s assume you’ve completed a project and had it vetted by trustworthy beta readers, and now it’s as polished as you know how to make it. Let’s also assume that you know how to write a decent, professional query letter.

If you believe your project is strong and feel confident about it, you will probably write a strong, confident letter. More importantly, you will be motivated to find reputable agents who will be interested in your project and tenacious about sending out your queries. If, by contrast, you are uncertain about your project and its merits, you may have trouble writing an upbeat, engaging letter.  Each rejection will punch holes in your resoluteness, and you’ll spend far more time worrying about what’s wrong with your story (or your query) than you will actually striving to get your project out there.

That faith in your project and yourself will also serve you well when it comes to marketing your book. (And these days much of the marketing does fall to the writer, not the publisher.) If you don’t believe anyone will want to buy your book, why would you bother doing the work to market it? If, on the other hand, you believe you have something others will really enjoy or find useful, you will be enthusiastic about reaching out to possible readers. And enthusiasm is contagious.

Caveat: Confidence is useful; arrogance, not so much. Some writers get presumptuous and self-aggrandizing and approach agents and editors by using unrealistic, overblown statements like “This is guaranteed to be a bestseller!” or “You are now reading a letter from the next JK Rowling!” These things neither inform the agent/editor about your project, nor endear you to him or her.  Humility and a willingness to learn usually go a lot farther.  Fortunately, confidence and humility can go together.

What are some ways you see self-fulfilling prophecies operating in your writing life? Where are they holding you back?

© 2012 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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