From Modern Mythology
“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” — The Thomas Theorem, formulated in 1928 by William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas
The world of society appears a machine run off of the fuel of self-fulfilling prophecy. The word “prediction” gives us insight into the nature of prophecy: prediction. Speaking of a thing before it has happened. Prognostication, the half-rational half-intuitive art of looking at the mess around us and hazarding a guess at where it is going to go.
It would be easy to assume that this is a passive act, a matter of mere observation — as though it necessarily follows that when one perceives the present, they can perceive the future. But what about when the prediction alters the present, contributing to a future that without the prediction would not exist? Of course, since we do not have the capacities to create a universe exactly alike our own to test and experiment with, to play back and forth making slight alterations, we cannot know for certain. We can do our best to connect the branching causal links, however.
So when I first learned about the Thomas Theorem, something clicked immediately.
“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” — The child in America: Behavior problems and programs.
I had struggled for ages to explain to people how mental states and psychological abstractions are not merely ephemeral reactions to external stimuli, but aspects of feedback loops that in turn affect our behaviors. Our thoughts on events affect how we feel in reaction to our own interpretations of those events, our emotions subsequently affect our drives and aversions and alter our behaviors. Because we cannot directly observe thought, belief, or feelings, it is easy to believe that they have no real-world effect.
For many of us born in countries that have inherited the legacy of Christendom, we are told that by the merit of our very birth we are gifted with a metaphysical superpower known as free-will, which allows us continuous authorship and subsequently total responsibility for every action that we take, every decision we enact. It is then easy — with this presupposition firmly entrenched — to dismiss the effects of external stimuli on internal mentality, and visa-versa. To deny that we are open systems, and that there is an influx and egress between our environment and the core of our existence as perceiving-beings. (I have no desire to get into a debate on the metaphysics of free-will, but merely point to it as an example of a way of thinking that produces real-world change.)
If I think that everything I do is sourced originally from within myself, then there is no incentive to investigate the catalysts that prompt me to ponder in the first place, nor those which compel me to take action. No reason to reflect upon the framing and anchoring of news stories, blogs, or books. The unconscious is relegated to the status of urban myth, a spook to worry lesser beings who believe in such superstition. The assumption of free-will is necessarily the denial of non-conscious cognitive processes, of denial of bias, and the proposition that we are the masters of the entirety of our being.
This is a belief system which renders a person totally responsible for everything they do; the perfect grift. If you can convince people that psychic abstractions have no real-world effect, that thoughts and feelings are merely strange footnotes in human existence, wisps of our experience that follow only after our free-will based decisions, then you can convince people that the life they are currently perceiving is not merely a best-guess neurological prediction machine. You can convince them that new ideas and managed expectations, emotions, and visceral drives have no more than superficial impact on their lives. The doctrine of free-willism, the metaphysical presupposition tacitly assumed as true and inherited by our cultural ties to Abrahamism, is essentially an anti self-help system. If you assume all that you have to do is throw free-will at a problem to solve it, and the problem remains unsolved, it must be that you desire to be burdened and have chosen such a victimization. You are always at fault, or in denial. It declaws the idea of introspection, of conscious behavior modification and extensive practice and training, of therapies intended to guide a person into their more desired state, of art that sways and moves people or inspires them into action. It denies the effect of lies, of propaganda, of marketing. It is a myth that deceptively limits our sense of the power of myth.
If we assume that we are the ultimate source from which all of our opinions, actions and emotions arise, we will not search out how they were absorbed by osmosis from our environment, our parents, our peers, nor how old narratives prime us to select more of the same, and discard the rest. If we accept that we are neither source nor first cause, we are forced to face the unconscious head-on, to stare at it in its darkened visage despite the pain or unease it causes us.
We have to come to accept that not all of our interpretations of events are just or fair, and that the relationship between psyche and environment is an open one. That the things we see as passive — such as making an off-hand prediction about the future — can affect the external world and alter that which we strive to objectively assess. Consider such phenomena as the Pygmalion effect, in which higher expectations placed on a person leads to increases upon performance; and likewise the inverted Golem effect, in which lower expectations placed results in lowered performance. We deal with Mean-World syndrome, in which those who consume large amounts of violent media tend to believe that the world is a more violent and unforgiving place than people who do not consume such media, despite the statistics that seem to indicate that violence crime has been steadily decreasing in many parts of the world for an extended time. The placebo effect, far from meaning “nothing happens”, refers to substances administered as medicines that have no active therapeutic effect, which still cause changes in the experiential — even the physiological — state of the patient. Nocebo effect does the opposite, in which inert substances produce harmful effects on the individual.
I’m not trying to convince you free-will isn’t real or that there’s nothing you can do to affect your own behavior, or to accept that you are a bio-robotic automaton, a p-zombie devoid of agency or identity. My musing here is merely a sort of memorial to self-fulfilling prophecy, a reminder to myself and others that the unconscious is not accepted into our cultural narrative despite the near ubiquity of the term. If you want to see an alien world, merely think of humans as open systems subject to outside influence and go and talk to anyone about current events.