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Self-Defeating Prophecy

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"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 prophecy's very existence.

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. Of course, this can also backfire, as the failure of the prediction to come to pass may cause people to question the necessity of the steps taken to prevent it, and resist similar efforts in the future, possibly allowing the original prediction to come true anyway at a later time.

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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    Fan Works 
  • 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 The Parselmouth of Gryffindor, according to Dumbledore, this is why Trelawney's predictions rarely seem true, because they were only accurate as long as Trelawney didn't alter fate by saying them. Hermione thinks that just sounds like a bad excuse. At any rate, that sets small-p predictions apart from true Prophecies, which, as in canon, are the opposite, only coming true if their targets act on their information.

    Films - Live-Action 
  • Avengers: Infinity War: Doctor Strange uses the Time Stone to look through millions of futures to find the one where they win. He does find it, but he can't tell anyone the full details. After they seemingly lose, he tells Tony it was the only way, right before Strange disintegrates along with half the universe. In Avengers: Endgame, even after Strange and everyone else is resurrected, he still can't tell Tony anything until the last second.
    Tony: Tell me this is it.
    Strange: If I tell you what happens, it won't happen.
  • In Minority Report, the precogs' visions are used to prevent the crimes that the precogs foresee.
  • Discussed in Next: The Arc Words of the film are, "This is the thing about the future. Every time you look at the future, it changes, because you looked at it."

  • 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. (In other cases, the efforts to avert them just make them likely to come early. Charles I's having Cromwell preemtively arrested for regicide in 1633, killing his wife and eldest son in the process, just makes Cromwell start planning said overthrow a decade sooner than he originally would have.)
  • In the Book of Jonah, the titular prophet announces that the city of Nineveh will be destroyed for its wickedness. The people of the city repent, so the destruction does not happen. This makes Jonah angry, because he actually wanted Nineveh wiped off the planet. God gently shows him how unreasonable his anger is.
  • In A Christmas Carol, the Three Spirits show Ebenezer Scrooge visions of how he became the miserly unhappy wretch he is, the harm he is doing to others, and then a prophecy of a dark future should "these shadows remain unaltered by the Future". After seeing this, Scrooge decides to change his attitude and be more charitable and kind, therefore defeating the Ghost's prediction.note 
  • In "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick, the precogs' visions are used to prevent the crimes that the precogs foresee. The three precogs don't always see things exactly the same, which the protagonist discovers is because each vision immediately starts affecting the future: the first precog's vision is of the future as it would have been with no visions, the second vision is of the future with the existence of the first vision taken into account, and so on.
  • Defied by Larry in A Night in the Lonesome October, whose gift of "anticipation" makes his intuition near-prophetic. He knows that telling people about what he's anticipated may change the outcome of events, so he keeps quiet if talking would prevent the outcomes he's counting on.
  • 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.
  • This is usually how precognition works in Anne McCaffrey's To Ride Pegasus series; precogs have visions of disasters, report them to the appropriate people, and frequently manage to avert them. In one incident, it was explained that the reason that the precogs didn't predict a barely averted crisis was because people guessed it might happen and took countermeasures to avert it without the need for precog.
  • In The Wheel of Time, Aviendha discovers that a device normally used to give visions of one's ancestral past can also give visions of a probable future, seen from the perspective of her descendants. It's an appallingly Bad Future, but the other Wise Ones point out the visions provide enough information to prevent the calamity; as proof of this, she can change the names of her children from those given in the visions.

    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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Whether or not this is possible is a major question for the characters of FlashForward (2009).
  • 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.
  • Stargate SG-1 The aptly named "Prophecy". Jonas develops the ability to have visions of the future, eventually has one depicting the Goa’uld successfully attacking (and probably destroying) the SGC using SG-15's iris code, and finally has one depicting SG-15 (and O'Neill and Teal'c) being ambushed by the Goa’uld forces, leading to the aforementioned attack on Earth. Hammond attempts to contact them over the radio and warn them of this. The Quisling (having captured a radio) hears it, realizes they escaped, and sounds the alarm. The alarm in turn makes enough noise to ruin the ambush, allowing the SGC personnel to fight them off.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In the 2021-2022 The Phantom storyline "The Chronicle of Old Man Mozz", the Phantom is told of the dire consequences that will result if he rescues Sarvana from Gravelines Prison. The Phantom is quick to note that the prophecy seems to depend not just on him doing so, but doing so without knowing what Mozz has told him, and that he could easily rescue her and take precautions against the events Mozz describes now that he knows about them.

    Video Games 
  • This is actually the major point of Zeratul's quest in StarCraft 2. Early in the Wings of Liberty Quest, Zeratul comes to Jim Raynor and hands him an Ihan Crystal filled with the memories of everything Zeratul has done to discover the truth of the Xel'Naga. Not only does he find a prophecy from the long-dead Tassadar, but he also learns what he has to do to stop the destruction of the universe: save Sarah Kerrigan aka The Queen of Blades from death. While it's not certain at first what he meant by this, Jim takes it as a caution of the future and proceeds to save Sarah from herself, stops Tychus from killing her, and brings her back to Moebius base for testing. She awakens, leaves, becomes the primal Queen of Blades and destroys Mengsk's Domninion Empire. From there Artanis manages to retrieve the Keystone which is used to send Amon back to the Void and save the universe, and even Artanis himself would have been captured if Zeratul wasn't there on Aiur to sever his nerve cords and save his life. In the end, Zeratul dies long before he sees Amon destroyed, however thanks to Zeratul's actions, he proceeds to completely decimate Amon's plans in the long run all because he knew what would happen.
  • 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. It's noted that the Light Prognosticus isn't a 'real' prophecy, just a how-to book on averting the real one in the Dark Prognosticus, but it ends up working in the end.
  • Played with 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.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles 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.

  • 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 (whom his quest ended up saving from suicide) 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 hanged herself.
    • One exception to this was the "Fated Fatal". The seer does not receive any vision of the future, merely a horrible feeling of nausea that foretells the inevitable death of someone close to them. Dominic tries everything in his power to prevent it but is hampered by the lack of specific information (he doesn't even know who will die) and fails to prevent the death of Siegfried.
  • 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.

    Western Animation 
  • The Legend of Korra Vaatu tells Wan that the Era of Raava was over. Technically he was correct, since Raava and Wan merge to form the original Avatar, and thus beginning the Era of the Avatar.
  • The season 4 premiere of Rick and Morty involves Death Crystals, alien crystals that show whoever holds one how they will die. The knowledge of how one will die almost always allows them to avoid said death, so the visions constantly change, making them useless outside of combat (where they allow Rick to avoid enemy fire). Most of the episode's plot stems from Morty seeing himself dying of old age with Jessica and going to extreme lengths to ensure it will come true.

    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 that they bought too much into their own hype, which is a big reason why the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, despite the Colts being heavy favorites. 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." The hype around the Colts was so much that the Baltimore players ended up lounging by a pool before the game rather than practice, an image which is now brought up for its hindsight of how arrogant the Colts were.
    • The New England Patriots were gunning for an undefeated perfect season in 2007, a record not matched since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. They rolled into the stadium at Super Bowl XLII like they already had it in the bag, openly antagonizing the New York Giants and their fans. When talking to reporters about a prediction from the Giants' Plaxico Burress that the Giants would win 23-17, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady responded dismissively, "We're only going to score 17 points? HA! HA! HA! Okay!" Words Tom Brady and the New England Patriots would soon regret when the Giants pulled a last minute upset during the fourth quarter, with David Tyree's famous "helmet catch" putting the Giants above the cap. Victory for the Patriots trickled away and their perfect 2007-2008 season was ended by losing the one game that mattered — The Super Bowl — to the 5th seed New York Giants. However, the Patriots did not score 17 points... they scored 14, the Giants scored 17.
    • 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 Tyson 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.
  • This trope is theorized to have played a role in various close elections (especially low turnout local ones) in countries that don't have mandatory voting. When a candidate is predicted to win, many members of their base won't take the time to vote and their campaign will spend less money to secure victory. This of course leads to a defeat.
  • The hope of many climate scientists is that using the knowledge of climate change, we can change our current behavior and create techno-fixes that means that our worst predictions never come to pass.
  • Widespread publicity about the "Y2K" (Year 2000) bug crashing much of the world's computer systems spurred efforts to upgrade code so it didn't happen.
  • The music group Sneaker Pimps exploded onto the scene with an unique sound and a charismatic female singer named Kelli Ali with an unique voice. It was later learned that the sound was called Trip Hop, a music sub-genre that was already at the peak of popularity in Europe. Because of this, their debut album, 'Becoming X' was a good success for them. However, the leader of the group wasn't satisfied and decided to drop the lead singer and replace her with the lead guitar player, Chris Corner. And they changed their sound from Trip Hop to Alternative Rock. When asked why, he claimed he didn't want the band to sound like another Trip Hop band with a female singer, which has been popular in Europe since the artist Tricky and the group Massive Attack. However, this backfired. While they no longer sounded like a Trip Hop band, which they believed would cause them to fail, they sounded like one of the many alternative bands that were flooding the airwaves during the 90s. Also, the fans of the group were already in love with the Trip Hop sound and captivated by Ali as the lead singer. This resulted in a downward spiral that eventually caused the band to break up after releasing two follow up albums that didn't do as well as the first.