Is Law School Stress a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

The topic in my Ethics and Professionalism class recently was mental health and fitness in the legal profession. The guest lectures and discussion revolved a lot around issues of alcohol and substance addictions in the profession. One student commented that in the “swag bag” given to first years during orientation, there were brochures about depression and substance abuse and related support resources. This student found the inclusion of such material helpful as a way to pre-emptively address what is an unfortunate problem in the profession, but also “weird” as some sort of odd omen of things to come, namely stress.

This comment reminded me of something I’ve been thinking on for some time now, and that is the question of to what extent, if any, the stresses of law school are a self fulfilling prophecy. For starters, here is a quoted Wikipedia definition: “A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior.” To me, the main thrust of a self-fulfilling prophecy is expectation. I expect X to happen; therefore, my behaviours, affects, and attitudes directly and/or indirectly make it more likely for X to happen. I expect law school to be stressful; therefore, my behaviours, affects, and attitudes make it more likely that law school is stressful.

Is this something that happens? I think it is. By no means am I suggesting all the stressors that one can come across in law school are explained by this phenomenon. But I do think part of the stress is caused this way. The relevant expectation related to stress in law school is the expectation of importance: the importance we as law students think we must place on various aspects of law school. First and foremost, the importance placed on grades: in my experience both as a student and as a peer tutor, I can see the high levels of stress caused directly by the expectation that grades are incredibly important. There is a dangerous leap a lot of us students make, often unconsciously, from seeing grades as important for creating certain opportunities to seeing grades as the sole means of creating worthwhile opportunities or even as a reflection of self-worth. When everyone talks about grades and what numbers are needed for what doors to open, the expectation is formed that grades are the be all and end all of one’s law school experience. (They are not). The same process can apply to any other aspect of law school: the importance placed on certain kinds of jobs, certain kinds of employers, the OCI process, etc.

Related to the concept of a self fulfilling prophecy and expectations is the concept of a script. In psychology, there is the concept that we learn certain scripts about how the social (and natural) world around us works, and hence we shape our behaviours, affects and attitudes according to this script. There is a script for what happens when you ring up your groceries at the cash register, about what a date looks like, about how a job interview is supposed to unfold, and etc. If our script of law school is that we are “supposed” to be stressed, then we are much more likely to act, feel and be “stressed”. The distinction I’m attempting to draw is between the script that says: law school is going to be inevitably stressful, so you should act/feel/be stressed and then combat that stress, vs a script that says: law school is not inevitably going to be stressful, but if it is, we’ll deal with the stress if and when it comes up. I think pre-empting our expectation of law school with the expectation of stress is more likely to bring about stress. This is akin to caregivers and parents telling children that they must eat their vegetables. The child, before she has had any chance to form a script about how eating vegetables is supposed to go, is being given negative signals: that vegetables are something different, something she must eat, and why must she be told to eat them unless they are somehow bad. And lo and behold, the child dislikes her vegetables. The same goes for warning children they may find math difficult and observing that they end up finding it more difficult than other subjects, having formed the expectation that it is so.

I think there is also a cultural component at play. Those who know me know that I’ve had an eclectically multicultural upbringing, and while that makes me the perpetual outsider, it also has made me an acute observer of the social world and always interested in culture, understood by me very broadly as all the stuff in a human’s mind. One spectrum on which cultures can be studied runs between the poles of individualism and collectivism. In an individualistic culture, the individual is the unit of social measurement and focus, with his or her rights, ambitions, perceptions and value more in focus than the group, community or relational bonds among individuals. One key assumption of an individualistic culture is that the individual is capable of generally controlling the world. I think as law students, we may have too much of an individualistic culture when it comes to the degree to which we can control certain outcomes. We think it is wholly in our control to achieve grade X or job Y, and so our stress comes from the fact that if we do not achieve grade X or get job Y, it must mean it is our shortcoming. We do not sufficiently account for the myriad other factors at play which affect such outcomes, like statistical realities of grading, subjective perceptions of job applicants, the breakfast we had that morning, the weather (seriously, look at the research literature on the link between hot days and murder rates). Couple this illusion of ultimate control with the expectation that grade X and job Y are supposed to be important enough to stress about incessantly, and we have a problem.

I realize I’ve discussed some incredibly complex concepts in some incredibly simplified terms, but as always with this blog, my intention is not to answer questions, but to raise them, ponder them, and ultimately leave them with the reader.  I’ll cheesily end with a favourite saying of mine which to my mind sums up the enormous power that expectations can exercise on the course of our lives. ‘Our greatest fear is that our stories tell us’.

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