Home > Sport > Cognitive Resonance and Self Fulfilling Prophecies

Cognitive Resonance and Self Fulfilling Prophecies

Prophecies regarding human behavior are only fulfilled once they are believed.


The Spanish team celebrates their world cup 2010 win.

Did you see what just happened today in South Africa? Spain, an underdog after only 13 World Cup appearances, defeated The Netherlands for the championship win. So how did Spain get to a final in the first place? It’s because they beat Germany 1-0 after Germany beat Argentina 4-0, England 4-1 and Australia 4-0. How did this upset happen? Because of raw Spanish skill? Please. Spain beat Germany because of belief in a prediction by an allegedly “psychic” Octopus.

The Plot

When a local German aquarium decided to acquire an English octopus, they decided to have some fun with it by allowing the animal to pick clams out of one of two boxes, each with a flag from countries participating in an upcoming major football match. The box with the flag the Octopus opens first is said to be the winning team. Seems pretty straight forward, right?

Remember, this is just blind speculative fun. It was not supposed to be taken seriously.

So far, out of 13 matches, the Octopus has only been wrong twice, but has been correct about all of Germany’s matches – including the Semi-final match against Uruguay and the final match between Spain and the Netherlands. Please note that the Octopus has only been wrong about non German matches until the World Cup final. So could the animal really be psychic?

Cognitive Resonance

To understand why a powerhouse team like Germany could have been defeated by such an inferior class of a team, you have to first understand human behaviour. Have you ever heard the expression that “belief kills and belief cures“? The adage is a perfect description of a human characteristic called cognitive resonance – a curious propensity to adjust behavior to beliefs.

Cognitive resonance basically describes the human capacity to subconsciously conform their behavioral pattern to match that of an existing ideology they subscribe to. The term is widely used in human resource management to describe the best performing employees who have achieved some cognitive resonance with the cultural outlook of the company they work for.

But in this specific case, cognitive resonance explains why Germany’s team could have been beaten by Spain. Unconvinced? Consider this: How does Germany thwart fairly strong teams with such a massive goal difference, only to be trumped one nothing twiceboth times by inferior teams and only when the Octopus said so? Isn’t it obvious what’s going on here?

Did you really think that after thrashing Australia (a fairly weaker team I admit), utterly crushing England and essentially embarrassing the Argentinians with the same number of goals scored, that they could lose to Serbia and Spain by a paltry 1-0? I can understand that if you were religious or superstitious, you would probably say that the matches were hexed.

Instead, I offer you a much simpler explanation:

Germany lost to Spain and Serbia because of simple anxiety over their belief in the Octopus. The German players were well aware of the Octopus’ remarkable accuracy about all of their other games. Naturally, if the Octopus didn’t pick them to win, their cognitive resonance about the prediction would ultimately cause it to come true – it’s essentially a self fulfilling prophecy.

Self Fulfilling Prophecies

The Psychic Octopus’ predictions weren’t all accurate. They only started to become accurate after media publicized the fact that a couple of fluke games coincided with the previously unknown mollusk’s predictions. Once the Octopus’ predictions became public, people began to believe, and the vicious cycle between subconscious behavior modification and belief began.

Once people started to believe the Octopus, games began to match the predictions. Curiously, everyone then forgot about all of the previous games that the Octopus was wrong about – games that the media ignored. That’s just how people are. They can believe in something so deeply that their very belief makes it happen through subconscious behavior modification.

The Octopus hasn’t been wrong ever since.

When belief creates cognitive resonance, self fulfilling prophecies often result. A self fulfilling prophecy is one that once made, causes a pattern of behavior that ultimately renders it true, even though it is essentially false to begin with. This leads to a reign of false dominance by the prophet (in this case, the Octopus), which others can claim to be true to from the beginning.

The Danger of Self Fulfilling Prophecies

Because of the human capacity to inexorably transform belief into action, even the very best of us can be victims of our own mind. This is why propaganda campaigns are so effective during war. If you defeat the mind of your opponent, half the battle is already won. This is also why parents who fail to positively reinforce their children, will ultimately raise them to be failures.

It’s the same thing with religious folks who believe in the saving power of Jesus. Jesus never fails because imaginary friends only have imaginary powers. Once you believe in Jesus, the resulting cognitive resonance with Biblical scripture causes you to become righteous (by Christian standards anyway) and credit for the new lifestyle is given to the power of Jesus.

See how that works? It’s an infinite feedback loop where belief creates behavior, thereby reinforcing belief. If you believe you can do it, you will, ultimately validating the “fact” that you can do it if you believe you can. The power the subconscious mind wields over most of our behavior is just profound – and that’s exactly how people become enslaved to religious cults.

That’s equally why Germany won big when the Octopus said they would and why they failed by such a narrow margin – again, only when the Octopus said they would. The Octopus is a false prophet, just like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Joseph Smith and Michael Travesser, who has been validated by the belief of its believers, thereby creating an infinite feedback validation system.

Germany - beaten by Spain.


When I queried my friends about why Spain beat Germany, they all gave me different reasons. One said that Germany played with a different strategy that day. Another said that Spain plays possession football. They may both have been right – if the Octopus wasn’t involved. You see, prophecies regarding human behavior are only fulfilled once they are believed. It has nothing to do with circumstance or strategy. Germany failed only because they believed they would.

It’s that simple.

They believed they would fail because the Paul the Octopus was right about the games they would win. They won those games because Paul the Octopus was probabilistically correct about two previous games. We now live in an age where science has become so sufficiently advanced such that it is indistinguishable from magic. So someone is making a lot of money.

Do you notice that when the Octopus picks a winning team, the team is usually picked from the box on the right? Do you also notice that the Octopus primarily hangs out on the right side of the aquarium? Do you realize that if this much significance is placed on a cephalopod that doesn’t even know what it’s doing, the location of the winning flag is completely irrelevant?

Think about it. 😉

Either way, this has got to be the single worst World Cup final I’ve ever watched, played by two of the least deserving teams I have ever seen, with the most rambunctious card fest I have ever witnessed since the debacle that was Germany vs. Serbia in the group stage. Germany would’ve easily bested Spain and the Netherlands if it weren’t for that damn Octopus.

When Müller, Podolski, Klose, Schweinsteiger, Joachim and company get back to Berlin, they need to deep fry that son of a bitch, or bring in a Japanese chef to put it out of its misery. Sadly, there is no provision in FIFA regulation to account for cognitive resonance (all is fair in love and war). So I hope the hapless animal becomes their consolation entree once they land.

Besseres Glück in vier Jahren, meine mannschaft, meine Freunde.

  1. Stewart
    July 13, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    I agree whole heartedly with what you have said here. I cannot believe Germany lost to such an inferior Spanish team. Spain in no way deserved to win the world cup and they won it only because of the very pathetic teams they faced. I am willing to bet that if Spain met an actual proper football team (ala Brazil, Argentina… cant say Germany since they lost) then the world cup would’ve ended in a much more horrid way.

    Oh well, on to the next one

  1. July 12, 2010 at 1:52 am
  2. July 12, 2010 at 12:44 am

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