January 29, 2003

· Misc

David Post over at the Volokh Conspiracy has discovered the concept of self-defeating or ‘suicidal’ prophecies. The modern locus classicus of this idea (to coin a phrase) is Robert K. Merton’s essay “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”, published in the American Sociological Review in 1936 (J-Stor Link). Here’s an essay by Rob Norton on the topic.

David also wants to coin a phrase and eventually settles on the “Reverse Tinkerbell Effect” to describe the phenomenon. In Peter Pan, the more you believed in fairies the realer they became. David says, “The reverse Tinkerbell effect,therefore, occurs when the more you believe in something, the more likely it is to vanish.”

An example might be, say, the belief that there’s a terrifically good reason to invade Iraq. The Administration’s immense belief one exists seems to be making an actual reason harder and harder to observe.

Ahem. Sorry about that. Totally gratuitous. ;-)

Incidentally, Robert Merton (who’s still alive and well and living on the Upper West Side, even though his first major publication appeared in 1934) has a whole book about, amongst other things, how the same ideas keep getting rediscovered over and over again as time goes by.

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