Her children were the first to see the picture of their mother in the newspaper. It made the kids panic. An ink spot had spilled onto the middle of her forehead, and in their innocent eyes, “it looked like someone had put a bullet through her.” “Mamma’s been shot, Mamma’s been shot,” they screamed, running home to be sure she was still alive. 

The truth was she had been shot. But not by a firearm. The assailant was a photojournalist named Dorothea Lange. And it just so happens, she shot a photo that captured the suffering of the Great Depression. Their mother, as the nation would come to know her, was the Migrant Mother

The photo has been dubbed the most iconic photo in American History. To many, it is simply known as The Picture because it took the nation’s collective breath away. The wrinkled eyes. The motherly agita. All perfectly captured the nation’s angst. It also immortalized Florence Owens as a victim of her time. Florence Owens. That’s her name. And it’s an important name to remember too, because if people took the time to learn it, they may have learned her situation—not just an unwanted epithet. What Florence Owens needed was for the people look—not at the picture—but at her life. 

Today, when the children get questions about their mother they get a little defensive. In a recent interview Norma Rydlewski—the one pictured in her mother’s lap—looks flustered. Her arms are crossed. Her fingers are clenched. She’s heard it all. But one constant undermines every inquiry surrounding her mother. Pity. But Norma doesn’t want you to pity her mom. No, what Norma wants is for you to know the truth. 

Norma is the small baby in Florence’s arms. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1936.


The truth as a Self Fulfilling Prophecy

Fast forward a few years to 1948. Nazi barbarism had forced the world to answer impossible questions about human behavior. Which sent social scientists scurrying out of the laboratory like the very rats they were experimenting on. The best ones were asked to join the speaking circuit, and they were treated like academic rockstars. Their ballads answered the unsolvable mysteries. And at the top was Robert Merton. 

Merton recognized a behavioral pattern when we create a “false definition of a situation [or person]” our new behaviors make the originally false concept come true. In short, what we believe to be true—no matter how crazy it is—is manifested merely because we expected it. Eventually, he coined it with a term we’ve all unknowingly used: Self Fulfilling Prophecy

Robert Merton


Our beliefs create our reality towards them. So, when our beliefs are formed in error, these prophecies can quickly turn into a curse.

When Merton spoke to his audiences he often gave an especially visceral example from their era. Imagine hundreds of customers panicked because they believe their bank is going out of business. The panic is contagious, so even more people withdraw their entire accounts. These massive withdrawals force the bank to close. Even though all along the bank was financially stable. But customers walk away confident their expectations were prescient.

Bank runs were all too common during the depression.

Consider these examples:

  • You notice a manager interrupts you. She does it because she’s comfortable with your relationship. But you believe the culture has changed in the office. Every social interaction confirms your feelings.
  • Your account balance is low. You’ve been spending too much. But you believe you’re not making enough money. Each time you check your balance it confirms “you need a raise.”
  • A friend is late for lunch. She was stuck waiting for her newborn to wake from his nap. But you believe she’s distancing herself. “You don’t need her friendship anyway.” So you stop calling.
  • A student is struggling to understand a math concept because he’s distracted by his parent’s divorce. But you believe he’s not putting in the effort. “If he isn’t willing to try, then I’m not willing to help him.”

As Merton explained, “The common denominator in all of these cases is that individuals mistakenly think that their belief follows reality when in fact their belief creates it.” 

Those that look beyond their own personal belief bias have become Merton’s successor (and our modern academic rockstars.) For example, Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of busting common misconceptions by avoiding this bias. “When we perceive the actions and intentions of others, we tend to make mistakes”, He says. “We see things that aren’t there and we make predictions that we ought not to make: we privilege the person and we discount the influence of the situation.” 

What has been dubbed a “reign of error” has continued in our day. But apparently, it’s gotten worse. Which means we’ve gone from seeing the situation wrong to not considering the situation at all. We find solace in labeling people and their personalities instead of identifying how their context affects their behavior. You could call it Empathy 101. But somehow we sleep through the final exam because we’re stuck on the idea that personalities are fixed. Consider how our scenarios play out now when we rush to the label.

  • A manager interrupts you. He is socially unaware.
  • Your account balance is low. Your spouse is greedy.
  • A friend is late to lunch. She’s inconsiderate.
  • A student is struggling to understand a math concept. He is slow.

Consider a study in 1975, when Ostrom asked college students to rank the kind of information they would need to form an impression of another person. What he found was 26% of all the information were label related. That may not seem high, but consider that affiliations, memberships, behavior, attitudes, demographic and physical qualities accounted for only 19% of the list combined. In short, Ostrom shows that we instinctively reach for the label because they are cerebral shortcuts—even though this path is littered with incorrect assumptions along the way. So, if done out of spite, or in error, labels become self-fulfilling prophecies that quickly turn into a curse.

Identify a label you’ve recently pinned on someone. What is a potential context that you may have not considered? How does this impact your label?


For the rest of their lives, Florence’s children couldn’t escape The Photo.  Years later they visited the San Francisco Museum of Art where many of Lange’s work was exhibited. In reviewing their mother’s photo the museum’s curator added a dose of drama, stating that Florence Owen’s “life [was] most likely saved by Lange’s photo.” The assertion brought out groans of agony because it conjured up painful memories. People assumed they understood their mother. They pitied her without ever knowing her true situation. But, pity is assumptive once again. It’s more spectator sport than empathy. When we pity someone, like Florence Owens, we “maintain a safe emotional distance from them.” Because, it “involves the belief in the inferiority of the object, … in many cases of pity we could offer substantial help, but perceive ourselves as being unable, or not obliged, to do so.”1  And so our labels of pity include behaviors to save someone from a distance. For example, almost immediately after the photo’s release, the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food to Florence’s migrant camp.2 But it was too late. Florence and her family had moved on. That’s what you do when you are a migrant. “We were already long gone… by the time any food was sent there,” said Owens. “That photo may well have saved some peoples’ lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn’t save ours.”

Because what Florence Owens really needed was people to know her name, not an unwanted epithet.

“My mom was really the strong one. My mom was the one who went out and found the work. I always consider my mom very strong….We relied on that.” says one of her Florence’s kids. “She would out pick almost any man in the field.” The kind of work which would leave most men with crushing ague. But Florence would still “go home that night and take care of the kids, cook the dinner, and wash the clothes.” 

Strong. Beautiful. Reliable. Those are labels that honored the Migrant Mother with a deep appreciation for her context. Those are the kind of labels that should endure.

  1. The subtlety of emotions, 328
  2. Schoettler, Carl (November 12, 2002). “A true picture of hard times. Photo of poverty sells for a stack of riches”. Daily Press (Virginia).

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