Friday, June 18, 2010

Delusion is Dangerous

Recently a reader left a comment on one of my earlier posts regarding their belief in “The Secret”. I had already planned on addressing my thoughts on this baloney in an upcoming post, however I chanced upon video of a talk by acclaimed journalist, author and political activist, Barbara Ehrenreich where she explores the darker side of positive thinking.

The clip below was produced by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London. Not some recent New Age think spa, the RSA “has been a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress for over 250 years.” Among its members have been the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth and Charles Dickens.

In any event, rather than attempt to tackle this subject myself, I will instead let this EXCELLENT video speak for itself. I encourage you to invest 10 minutes of uninterrupted time, if you can. As always, comments are welcomed and encouraged.


Elisabeth said...

Fantastic post, Robert and oh so timely.

I have just collected and started to read my copy Ehrenreich's book, Bright-sided.

I think of what she calls the delusion of positive thinking and optimism as the delusion of our omnipotence. It's infantile. The notion that 'I think it and therefore I can make it happen, single handed'.

It's egocentric and lacking in compassion as Enrenreich suggests because it does not take into consideration unconscious factors in all of us which well might undermine our best efforts and also external factors that are well beyond our control, including the business of which country into which we are born.

To be born into a drought ridden desert land wracked with war is not the same as to be born into a middle class comfortable family in America or Australia.

Good on Enrenreich for writing so eloquently on these matters and thanks to you Robert for alerting us to them here.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on that irresponsible;e book, The Secret. I agree with Ehrenreich, it's a travesty.

I don't usually say such things about anyone's writing but in this case I think it needs to be said. This book fuels the business of blaming the victim and denying people's real pain.

It's basically false premise needs to be exposed.

Gorilla Bananas said...

His argument is a little one-sided. Thoughts don't influence natural phenomena, but they certainly influence behaviour, emotional states and even states of heath (as in the placebo effect). But I forgive him his excesses. He almost hypnotized me with his amazing hand-speed!

Penny said...

Now, if some BP executives had listened to warnings and concerns we wouldn't be wanting to plug their well with those same executives. That's yet another good example of what happens when only "positive thinking" is allowed.

We used to use the expression: "wishful thinkers" to describe delusional folk...

Great post and video!

The Mother said...

Oh, the Secret Lady did not really say that, did she?

How is that different from Pat Robertson blaming the Haiti Earthquake on pacts with the devil?

Positive psychology is a religion, pure and simple. Until we get out from under this "something in the sky does it" crap, we won't be able to fix the big problems.

Which is essentially what Ehrenreich said, so I'm just repeating (ranting?).

Incidentally, Ehrenreich is one of the big names in Victorian and witch hunt history, so I have a stack of her books in my library.

KleinsteMotte said...

The visual effect along with the voice has me thinking about the influence of voice, animation and how we perceive it and what we accept as truth for ourselves.The media manipulation about what's good for us is becoming increasingly invasive. Neither optimism nor pessimism play a role in the way we are being manipulated psychologically. Electronic media is redefining needs and greed and pushing the consumer towards individuals who crave everything and over-consume creating addictions that need healing spas. Fear is sold to make believe security can be purchased! 3D motion pictures are a perfect means to create huge delusions. Games with parallel worlds. People spending hours in made up places.Soon minds will forget whether there is a reality. There is no plan to
restructure thinking away from a monetary reward system. Consumerism is going to continue. Picture a skinny villager on a cell phone dreaming of a better life and a billionaire on a cell phone dreaming of his next fix. The problem is the dream.
Sleep studies are being conducted. Is that to change the way of dreams? Outcomes??

Robert the Skeptic said...

Elisabeth Indeed the tragedy here is when the positive feelings fail to deliver. What is one to conclude from this, that they failed, that they are undeserving? It is very unkind when one thinks about it.

Bananas You are quite correct, thoughts don't influence natural phenomena; but she did make a point in also showing the equal fallacy of holding negative conclusions as well.

The salient point here is dealing with the reality of situations; removing the self-delusional aspects. No one can or would discount the importance and relevance of attitude which can indirectly influence outcomes.

Penny I think more of what happened in the BP incident is the tendency toward "group think" and making conscious decisions based on profit over safety. Businesses routinely make this mistake; often they skate by, but sometimes the consequences are disaster.

Dr. Mom Indeed "The Secret" embodies many of the elements of a cult religion. It would be interesting to know how many abandon it after it does not deliver what is promised.

Many people leave established religions for just that very reason. I know a man who was a missionary in Africa, wrote several religious books and became an Atheist. His main reason: the unmet promises of god; people doing all the right things and still being failed by the deity.

KleinsteMotte I agree; many of us in the west are going through a sort of consumer Renaissance and questioning the price we pay for consumerism. But third world countries are playing catch-up, they are dazzled by our brightly colored objects and see them as the talisman of progress.

Our concerns about environmental degradation fall on deaf ears, in fact, with suspicion that we might be trying to cheat them out of the baubles they desire as well.

The entire lecture is available on YouTube without the white-board animation. I just thought the animated one was more effective.

KleinsteMotte said...

I just tried something. I replayed the video two times; once with only sound by moving the screen away from the animation and once with no sound only animation.
Try it. I was able to get a better insight to the cartoonist when I had no sound distraction. I was able to hear more clearly the speaker without visual distraction. How does this work for you?? By the way I saw some very subtle comments in the cartoons that I failed to notice the first time. Look carefully. Share what you find.

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte Here is the original lecture video, runtime is 35 minutes:

I'll try the graphics without the sound... interesting.

TechnoBabe said...

I sent my hubby the link to the 35 min video, we will watch that together today. I am one to be on guard for delusion vs reality, partly because of my hubby's manic episodes due to his bipolar disorder and also because of my own tendency to disassociate. I for one don't want to be spoon fed positive thinking theory and undercurrent suggestions that if I don't succeed it is my own fault for not putting the right vibes out there. I know there is more to it than that but for right now that is where I am at. Thanks for the video, it will spark lots of good conversation.

Robert the Skeptic said...

TechnoBabe My wife has two adult nieces who are bipolar which causes her sister no end of grief. Her sister tries to keep a positive attitude, falling back on some woo woo "wishful" thinking herself at times. Yet it's difficult to condemn her for that as it helps her to move forward under very difficult circumstances.

Maintaining confidence, self-assuredness, motivation all can be challenging due to what life throws at us. Again, though, the underlying danger is falling into deluding ourselves as we try to make sense of what face and what choices we need to make.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Mandatory optimism and cheerfulness in business or all sounds like The Emperor's New Clothes...s President who can't hear that his ideas are bad and unworkable. Trivializing suffering and adversity is immoral. There is a vast difference between finding something of value in a bad situation and the highly materialistic promptings of The Secret, which I agree undermine ordinary optimism by making unfulfilled wishes feel like failure. Delusions can be very seductive. Thank you, Robert, for tending to our sanity.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn Delusions are indeed seductive; it takes vigilance to be aware of this as we are "hard-wired" through evolution to seek patterns and make associations quite unconsciously at times. Often what "feels good" is not what is best for us. It's a tough sell at times.

secret agent woman said...

I'm late to the party because i've been out of town, but I had a negative reaction to that secret book here:

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Welcome back, hope you had a wonderful time. I read your archive; a thorough and thoughtful review. Nicely done!

Rosie O'Radar said...

I hear that a sequel to The Secret is coming out soon. Hmmm. All this magical thinking apparently needs further comment. When people ask me if I'm an optimist or a pessimist, I say NEITHER, I'm a REALIST.

Making the world either better or worse than it really is unrealistic. There are people who have been successful in attracting all kinds of riches, people, businesses, travel, etc. to themselves only to lose it all. Are people any happier in mansions with servants and trophy spouses than when they had a little home full of good friends and family? It's deceptive on an emotional and moral level, too.