Self-Defeating Prophecy

"The surest way to guarantee that you won't win is to assume that you will."

The most common prophecy in fiction is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy—people's reactions to the prophecy, whether to try to prevent it or to aid the Chosen One, end up causing it to happen. But the inverse is also quite common: a prophecy that would be inevitable, were it not for the existence of the prophecy.

Generally, a single person knows that something terrible will happen in the next 24 hours...unless that person can use her special knowledge to prevent it. More rarely, a person will accidentally thwart a good prophecy by trying to force it, or the prophecy will simply fail For Want of a Nail; the prophecy itself is the nail.

In Real Life, predicting that something terrible will happen often allows you to prevent it. Intelligence is an awesome power.

Compare Either/Or Prophecy, where the potential for thwarting is spelled out in the prophecy itself, and Set Right What Once Went Wrong, where the plot is nearly identical but the cause is Time Travel. Overlaps with Screw Destiny, where the prophecy is claimed to be inevitable but people hope it's self-defeating instead.


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  • The visions in Minority Report. In the original short story, this is taken to an extreme: one precog sees the future as it would have been if there were no visions. The second sees the future as it would have been if only the first vision existed. The third sees the future as it will be when all three exist.

  • Discussed in the Homestuck fic Back to the Garden:
    "It wouldn't exactly take much, John. In the middle of transporting someone Mr. Captor realizes how utterly exhausted he is and that he's never going to manage to carry all sixteen of us to safety. And so he can't."
    "But it wouldn't be true!"
    "He'd believe it is. His power is mostly mental. He's prone to depression. There's already a probability of it happening on its own. We do not need even a smidgen of weight added to that balance."

  • In A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge that no one will mourn his death due to his selfish and greedy behaviour. After seeing this, Scrooge decides to change his attitude and be more charitable and kind, therefore defeating the Ghost's prediction.
  • In the Temps Shared Universe, this is called the "Oedipus paradox", which researcher Simon Sweetland notes is completely wrong, because that was a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.
  • In the Book of Jonah, the prophet announces that the city of Nineveh will be destroyed. People of the city repent, so the destruction does not happen. This makes Jonah angry, presumably because it makes him look like a false prophet. Jahveh gently shows him how unreasonable his anger is.
  • In 1632 by Eric Flint, and its many sequels making up the Ring of Fire series AKA the 1632 series, the arrival of Americans from our time and the new knowledge about "historical" events from their timeline, prevents many events from happening, such as the tulip speculation and crash in 1637 or the overthrow of Charles I in 1649.

    Live Action TV 
  • The premise of many early Angel episodes. Angel's sidekick Doyle gets visions of the future, and Angel kills the Monster of the Week to make sure they don't come true.
  • The premise of most Early Edition episodes. The hero gets tomorrow's newspaper, which generally seems to predict the day as it would have gone had the newspaper not existed.
  • A regular occurrence on Eli Stone: Eli would get visions and try to prevent them from happening - like, his vision said a building was going to get bombed with his boss in it, so he tried to get his boss to leave the building before that happened. Sometimes it worked out in his favor, sometimes not.
  • Eureka does this with Mental Time Travel rather than prophecies. The season 1 finale has Carter travel back in time from a point where he's married to Allison. As a result, in the season 2 opener, he acts overly familiar with her, she's mildly put off, and they don't go on their first date as he remembers it; in the end that first date doesn't happen for almost three more years.
  • Whether or not this is possible is a major question for the characters of Flash Forward.
  • In Charmed, Phoebe's premonitions allow the sisters to prevent almost all of the tragedies she sees. It tends to be a real Tear Jerker on those rare occasions when they can't.
  • The Fades has two:
    • Paul twice has a prophetic dream in which he sees his loved ones dead; he's able to avert this because, when the time comes, he recognises the dream's circumstances and is able to check on them before the killer can get to them.
    • Part of the apocalyptic prophecy Paul and Sarah have been seeing involves Paul being stabbed to death at the end of a fight with John, the Big Bad. However, when the fight with John actually comes, Sarah takes the stab wound instead to allow Paul enough time to save the day, having only known to do this because of her visions.
  • The entire premise of Person of Interest. The Machine tells Finch that some person will be involved in a violent crime, then Finch has his associates figure out what it is and try to stop it from happening.

    Video Games 
  • The Dark Prognosticus in Super Paper Mario is a book that details a series of events that would come to destroy all universes. The Ancients, in response, created a counter-prophecy in the Light Prognosticus.
  • Xenoblade revolves around this. Not only do Shulk's Monado-born visions allow him to change the course of the story, they are also a system in-game: An enemy charging a powerful attack will make the team see a vision of the attack, and gives the player time to reduce the ill-effects of the attack, delay it, or flat-out shatter the future and not allow it to happen.
    • The storyline effects of Shulk's visions vary a bit, because of their nature. Shulk sees what will happen if things continue exactly the way they are when he receives the vision, usually creating a textbook instance of this trope when that very knowledge allows him to alter the circumstances. Several times, however he sees more far-reaching visions that seem conducive to his goals, prompting him to actively try to bring them about.
  • Played with hard in Tales of the Abyss. Two thousand years ago, Yulia Jue and Lorelei worked together to read the planet's future and record it in a huge prophecy known as The Score. The catch is that they had a choice of multiple futures - fate isn't set in stone. They foresaw the destruction of the world (basically the events of the game) and deliberately chose the path most likely to give the protagonists a chance to break the prophecy and escape the doom foretold. On the other hand, since the Order of Lorelei has everyone following The Score religiously, down to the last detail, it's also a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy unless they can find the way to break it...and it's not an Either/Or Prophecy because they aren't told how.
  • World of Warcraft had an odd combination of this and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy as part of the Cataclysm expansion. In ages past, the titans had a vision of the world of Azeroth covered in flames/darkness/evil/general old god nastyness, which they dubbed the hour of twilight. To prevent the hour of twilight, they created five powerful dragon aspects. However, the old gods corrupted one of these dragon aspects, Neltharion, who became known as Deathwing. A few thousand years later, Deathwing was on the brink of causing the very hour of twilight he was created to prevent. However, he was then stopped due to the efforts of another one of the dragon aspects, Nozdormu, who transported a group of heroes through time (after they defeated a future version of Nozdormu that lived after the hour of twilight had already happened) to retrieve a powerful artifact that Deathwing had created long ago. This artifact was then empowered by the combined forces of the remaining dragon aspects (plus an orc) and used to kill Deathwing.

  • Dominic Deegan's second sight shows the unaltered future: What the future will be if he doesn't do something specially to change it. In fact, later on when he gets a vision of doom for his friends, Dominic takes it as a good thing—because he had the vision, that means he can change what's going to happen.
    • One early example example is in the first story arc. He is looking for a cure to a curse and his vision directs him to the home of the person who cursed him, which has a potion to remove it. When he gets there that person's daughter undoes the curse herself. He wonders why he didn't see that coming, and realizes a moment later that his vision was of the unaltered future in which she had already hung herself.
  • In Homestuck, Terezi has the power to see the consequences of certain actions. For example, in a doomed timeline she lets Vriska go, which results in the deaths of every troll excluding Vriska and Aradia, and Vriska might not have lived much longer. She foresees these consequences in the alpha timeline. However, since she knows that in the alpha timeline, she and Karkat have to live for at least another two hours, she kills Vriska before that can happen.

    Real Life 
  • Some people belive Marx's prediction of the uprising of the proletariat to have been just that. Chances are, if he hadn't made the upper-class aware of that, it might have happened a lot more.
  • Astronomers are on look out for asteroids, charting their path and trying to predict if any of them will be a danger to the Earth. Their hope is to find them and alter their orbits so they do not crash into the Earth, although the technology to stop the asteroids is limited at the moment.
  • In the Netherlands, the national institute for meteorology performed a side job once, namely the prediction of traffic jams. They stopped doing this eventually because it caused this trope and made people angry. When people stayed at home because of the predicted traffic jam there would be no traffic jam at all, leading them to say the meteorology institute was wrong.
  • Overconfidence in sports is frequently a factor in athletes/teams losing in contests they were supposedly guaranteed to win. Some of the most prominent examples:
    • Many players on the 1968 Baltimore Colts still believe their believing their own hype led heavily to them losing Super Bowl III to the New York Jets. The late John Mackey frequently said in interviews about the game: "If you think you've won before the game begins, you got a major problem — and we had a major problem, because we had already won that game in our minds."
    • "We're only going score 17 points? HA! HA! HA! Okay!" Words Tom Brady and the New England Patriots would soon regret as their perfect 2007-2008 season was ended by losing the one game that mattered — The Super Bowl — to the 5th seed New York Giants.
    • The Soviet Union hockey team in the 1980 Olympics: Coach Viktor Tikhonov rested most of his best players in the days prior to the medal round while U.S. coach Herb Brooks maintained his team's intense training. But the big shot was during the U.S.-Soviet game itself, when Tikhonov benched goalie Vladislav Tretiak after one period for allowing two goals; many U.S players saw this as arrogance that the Soviets felt they could win with backup Vladimir Myshkin The rest is history.
    • Buster Douglas was considered such a no-name opponent against heavyweight champion Mike Tyson (the fight was held in Tokyo because no American venue saw the fight as worth hosting) that he was really lax in his training for the fight. Douglas, motivated by his mother's death, proceeded to train harder than ever before and delivered the best fight of his career, resulting in what many still call the greatest upset in boxing history.
    • Speaking of boxing, Adrian Broner who fights with a similar style to Floyd Mayweather Jr. jumped two weight divisions from 135 to 147 which is too soon a jump for many young fighters starting out. However, Broner, believing he's the next Mayweather, felt he couldn't lose and didn't take his challengers seriously. Then during the 2013 holiday season, Adrian Broner took on Marcos Maidana, a tough contender known for his pressure and knockout power. Maidana dominated Broner knocking him down twice and breaking his jaw, causing the sports upset of the year. The only positive thing for Broner was that he finished the fight on his feet.
  • The hope of many climate scientists is that using the knowledge of climate change, we can change our current behaviour and create techno-fixes that means that our worst predictions never come to pass.