The Self-Not-Fulfilling Prophecy

Das intentionales Handeln ganz unbeabsichtigte Folgen haben kann, ist ein Gemeinplatz in der Soziologie. Das Schulbeispiel stammt von Robert K. Merton und beschreibt den Bankrun im Jahre 1929 in den USA. Obwohl alle, die zu den Banken gelaufen sind, um ihr Bargeld abzuheben, den Verlust desselben vermeiden wollten, haben sie, durch ihre Handlungen dazu beigetragen, den Verlust herbeizuführen.

István Rév hat der Idee der Self-fulfilling-prophecy, wie sie gerade beschreiben wurde, eine interessante Wendung gegeben, nämlich die der Self-Not-Fulfilling prophecy. Am Beispiel des Endes der DDR beschreibt er zunächst, wie mehrere 100 DDR-Bürger in Ungarn den Weg auf das Geländer der deutschen Botschaft erzwungen haben, um dann darzustellen, dass das Ende der DDR auch ohne dieses Ereignis, dem gewöhnlich initial-Charakter zugeschrieben wird, erfolgt wäre. Er zitiert weiter eine Befragung von IfD Allensbach, in der nur 5% der befragten DDR-Bürger angeben, sie hätten mit dem unmittelbar bevorstehenden Ende der DDR gerechnet.  Aus diesen Prämissen folgt die folgende Argumentation:

“However, we might draw the conclusion that – at least in certain cases – it is precisely the benign lack of foresight that makes it possible to bring about the desired future. Predictions by social scientists that become public knowledge might prevent the predicted outcome. In certain cases, far from the lack of it, it is foresight that can prevent certain things from happening. Sometimes, when something is foreseen and that foresight is made public, it acts as a prohibitive force that undermines the chances of the occurrence or the foreseen event. Had the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party foreseen the consequences of Gorbachev’s election to the post of secretary general of the Party, he most probably would not have been elected (he would probably have been immediately shot instead), and this in turn might have given a completely different twist to the history of the Soviet Union.

Unfulfillment is usually considered as the unproblematic, one might almost say natural, outcome of prophecies in the sphere of social life. If prophecies are not fulfilled, modern scholarship does not feel that there is anything that would warrant a scientific explanation: it seems obvious that usually there is no connection between prophecy, foreknowledge, foresight, and the later events at which the prophecy was originally directed. If there is a correspondences between a publicly known prophecy and the outcome in the social sphere, than scholarly analysis is usually interested not so much in how the prophet (the social scientist, the politician, the speculator on the stock exchange, etc.) was able to foresee the future, but much more in what the impact of public knowledge was on the behavior of the participants and in what way public knowledge could influence later events, irrespective of the ability of the prophet to foresee. The foreseen outcome does not justify the foreseer. In the case of the so-called nomological sciences, we expect them to know in advance when a meteorite is going to strike the earth. But we also know that a car runs over another dog every day; so we do not expect the idiographical disciplines (like history) to give accurate projections. The incidents of yesterday (at least in the social sciences) are not coded information about the events of tomorrow” (286-287)

Rév, István (2000). The Self-Not-Fulfilling Prophecy. In: Dahrendorf, Ralph, Yehuda, Elkana, Neier, Ayeh, Newton-Smith, William & Rév, István (eds.). The Paradoxes of Unintended Consequences. Budapest: Central European University Press, pp. 285-300.