Self-defeating Prophecy

Year 2000 problem

A self-defeating prophecy is the complementary opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy: a prediction that prevents what it predicts from happening. This is also known as the ‘prophet’s dilemma.’ A self-defeating prophecy can be the result of rebellion to the prediction.

If the audience of a prediction has an interest in seeing it falsified, and its fulfillment depends on their actions or inaction, their actions upon hearing it will make the prediction less plausible. If a prediction is made with this outcome specifically in mind, it is commonly referred to as reverse psychology. Also, when working to make a premonition come true, one can inadvertently change the circumstances so much that the prophecy cannot come true.

It is important to distinguish a self-defeating prophecy from a self-fulfilling prophecy that predicts a negative outcome. If a prophecy of a negative outcome is made, and that negative outcome is achieved as a result of positive feedback, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if a group of people decide they will not be able to achieve a goal and stop working towards the goal as a result, their prophecy was self-fulfilling.

Likewise, if a prediction of a negative outcome is made, but the outcome is positive because of negative feedback resulting from the rebellion, then that is a self-defeating prophecy. The ‘Year 2000 problem’ was claimed to be an example of a self-defeating prophecy, in that fear of massive technology failures caused by clocks ‘rolling over’ encouraged the very changes needed to avoid those failures. Pre-announcing products in a way that discourages current sales (the Osborne effect) is also an example of a self-defeating prophecy.

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