ISU psychologists find mother's self-fulfilling prophecy influences child's alcohol use

AMES, Iowa -- Effects of self-fulfilling beliefs can add up over time and may lead to inequalities between individuals, according to a study on mothers' beliefs about their children's alcohol use by Iowa State University researchers.

Based on data from 775 mothers and their adolescent children, the study found that mothers' self-fulfilling effects widened differences in the alcohol use of adolescents whose mothers had repeatedly overestimated their likelihood of drinking alcohol, when compared to children whose mothers had repeatedly underestimated their likelihood of drinking alcohol. The difference that was present in these adolescents' alcohol use in the seventh grade had doubled by eighth grade and had tripled by 10th grade, simply because of their mothers cumulative self-fulfilling effects.

ISU Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephanie Madon teamed with Jennifer Willard, doctoral student in psychology; Max Guyll and Linda Trudeau, research scientists at the Partnerships in Prevention Science Institute (PPSI) at Iowa State; and Richard Spoth, Wendell Miller Senior Prevention Scientist and the Director of PPSI, on the study. PPSI's mission is to conduct innovative research promoting capable and healthy youth, adults, families, and communities -- through partnerships that integrate science with practice. They produced a paper titled "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Effects of Mothers' Beliefs on Children's Alcohol Use: Accumulation, Dissipation, and Stability Over Time," which was published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers report that a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when one person's inaccurate belief about another person initiates a sequence of events that ultimately causes that other person to exhibit the expected behavior -- causing the initially false belief to come true.

Data was obtained from two longitudinal trials focusing on the prevention of adolescent substance abuse and other problem behaviors. The studies were titled the "Capable Families and Youth Study," and the "Rural Family and Community Drug Prevention Project." Both studies sampled families in Iowa -- with researchers in this study analyzing data from 487 mother-child pairs who participated in Capable Families, and 288 mother-child pairs who participated in Rural Family. Only one child from each family provided data.

Researchers administered written questionnaires to family members who completed them individually and in separate rooms of their residence. Responses were confidential and not communicated to other family members. The questionnaires assessed a large number of variables related to family, peers and substance abuse. Mothers' beliefs about their children's alcohol use were assessed with their responses on rating scales in response to the following three items:

  • How likely you think it is that your child in the study will drink alcohol regularly as a teenager?
  • If your child in the study were at a party and one of his or her friends offered him/her an alcoholic beverage, how likely would your child be to just say "no" and leave?
  • If your child in the study were at a party and one of his or her friends offered him/her an alcoholic beverage, how likely would your child be to drink it?

Other questions in the survey assessed how likely a child was to drink alcoholic beverages -- considering such factors as a child's past alcohol use and alcohol use among their friends, among others.

"We compared each child's likelihood of drinking alcohol to her or his mother's belief to measure how much each mother had over- or underestimated her child's likelihood of drinking alcohol in the future," said Madon.

Capable Families participants completed the questionnaire in the fall of 1998 while children were in the seventh grade, and then again at scheduled follow-ups approximately six, 18 and 30 months later. Rural Family participants completed the questionnaires in the spring of 1994 while children were in sixth grade, and then again at follow-ups approximately 12, 24, 48, and 72 months later.

Analysis of the data yielded the following two findings:

  • Mothers' self-fulfilling effects accumulated over time among those children who consistently faced unfavorable or favorable beliefs from their mothers year after year.
  • The accumulation of mothers' self-fulfilling effects over time widened the initial differences in the alcohol use of children who were exposed to consistent histories of unfavorable versus favorable beliefs.

"So what we've found is that self-fulfilling prophecy effects accumulate over time and can produce increasingly divergent outcomes for those people who are repeatedly viewed unfavorable versus favorably by others," said Madon.

The researchers believe the results of this study have practical applications beyond children and alcohol use -- extending to such topics as discrimination.

"This addresses one of the core ideas in social psychology -- that people's beliefs can create reality," said Madon. "Our research showed that the self-fulfilling prophecy effects that people have on others' behavior can add up over time, and widen inequalities. This finding could generalize to social stereotypes. People who belong to negatively stereotyped groups often interact with others who view them in stereotypic ways. We know from other research that these stereotypic beliefs can be self-fulfilling. Our research suggests that the self-fulfilling effects of these stereotypic beliefs may add up over time to produce larger social inequalities between individuals from advantaged and disadvantaged groups over time."