In a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Ann Druyan (widow of and frequent collaborator with Carl Sagan) posits that denial of global warming can be blamed (at least partially) on the belief in our culture, reflected in the recurring motif in movies, that if you believe something strongly enough, it’ll happen. Rocky goes the distance. ET comes back to life. Seth Rogen makes a go of it with Katherine Heigl. This is what many of us want to hear. It’s comforting to think that what we want to happen will happen, and to hell with those unforgiving, restrictive laws of the natural world. But if you keep wishing upon a star once you've left the movie theatre, it'll only be so long before the real world chuckles at your hubris and casually shatters your ribcage with a flick of its pinky.
In her book Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), Barbara Ehrenreich looks at where America’s characteristic Positive Attitude comes from, what underlies it, and what its consequences have been. Just a quick note on the book's quality: I’ve reread it twice since devouring it a few months ago. I’ve transcribed extensive portions in preparation for this article and another one. I’ve been reading it aloud to my girlfriend in segments. And dammit, I’ve yet to get tired of it. I’m not going to wax enthusiastic about it any more, but buy the damn book! Read it! It’s fantaaaaaaaastic!!! The other article, by the way, relates the ideas she presents to the Enneagram. This one relates the book’s thesis to the Integral model’s stages of development - specifically how the move toward relentless Positive Thinking represents a regression to the Magic Stage, and why this just doesn’t work in the long run. I end by defending the all important, but often maligned, Rational Stage.
Stages of Development
First let’s take a quick look at those stages, charted by developmental psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg, Clare Graves, Carol Gilligan and others. These are overlapping stages all cultures move through (though not every culture reaches the higher stages), and individually each person does too. Each of us is human civilization in microcosm. We all start at square one. And anyone can rise to any level of developmental evolution. We tend to stay around the average level of our culture - what Ken Wilber terms the “centre of gravity.” But every person has their own centre of gravity, which could be beneath or above their culture's. And your level of development is an average of your behaviour. You might express the point of view of a more developed stage one day, and regress to a less developed stage on another.
(as a side note - not everyone agrees with the application of these levels to cultures. Integral theorist Bonnitta Roy has an essay on this site arguing that point, and is working on another one. Ken Wilber believes they do, explaining this in the Kosmic Consciousness interviews and elsewhere.)
Stage 1 - Archaic. Simple, immediate needs, readily observed in the behaviour of any baby or toddler.
Stage 2 - Magic. Believing you can change the world by wanting to. Magic words. Inanimate objects have consciousness, and power. Ego projections.
Stage 3 - Mythic/Membership. A transference of one's personal omnipotence onto one or more superbeings. And believing that if you please them, they'll bend the laws of physics for you. And they favour your group. Which creates an "us & them" mentality. And anyone in the "them" category isn't really a person.
Stage 4 - Rational. Modernism. Science. Evidence. If it can't be measured with instruments it doesn't exist. Emotions, metaphysics, the mind and life itself can all be explained as the interactions of hormones, chromosomes, molecules, atoms and quarks.
Stage 5. Pluralistic. Postmodernism. Egalitarianism. No one is better than anyone else. No culture is better than any other. No system of thought is better than any other.
Stage 6. Integral. Understands that this developmental ladder exists, and that every level is stage appropriate. They each have value. But they’re not equal. Stages grow more inclusive and more compassionate the further up they are. But anyone's allowed to be at any stage. The lower stages are not to be despised - they're the ingredients of the higher stages.
Widespread Magical Thinking
The Boomer Generation, as Wilber describes in Kosmic Consciousness, is the first to have a Pluralistic centre of gravity. The Boomers insisted on equal rights for women, the disabled and ethnic minorities. But simultaneously they developed a powerful streak of narcissism, earning them the nickname the “Me Generation.” Wilber later describes this as an accompanying regression (for some, at least) to the Magic Stage, hence the New Age belief that all medical conditions have solely mental causes, and mental cures. Ehrenreich opens Brightsided with an account of her battle with breast cancer, which entailed interaction with support groups who believed full recovery was available for those who showed a strong enough positive attitude. And vice versa - an extremely cruel, victim blaming implication. She was skeptical, and still beat the cancer.
She goes on to chart numerous examples magical thinking spread by the world of Positivity. A perpetually out of work friend of hers had been advised by a life coach to always carry a twenty dollar bill in his wallet, to “attract money.” A website instructs on building a “vision board,” telling the reader to cut the four corners from a dollar bill and glue them to the board’s corners, (even referring to this as “sympathetic magic”), claiming “one must have money to make money.” The DVD of The Secret shows a woman admiring a necklace in a store window, the shot then cutting to one of her wearing the necklace, having somehow “attracted” it. Ehrenreich later tells of an LA Times columnist’s sister who, inspired by The Secret, believed she deserved a hand tooled leather satchel she'd seen, and “manifested” it by charging to her Amex card.
Musician and Integral blogger Stuart Davis takes this message apart in an insightful article dissecting The Secret:
The Secret uses valid (but partial) suppositions such as:
Our thoughts and feelings are powerful
and inflates them to a Kosmic (and false) scale, giving us: Our thoughts are the most powerful things on Earth.
The Secret takes a statement like:
Thought can influence reality
and amplifies it to “Thoughts create reality.” Not just any thoughts, but YOUR thoughts.
(By the way, are you a rape victim? I guess you created that reality with your thoughts. Was your family member killed in Iraq? I guess you created that experience for yourself so you could learn from it. Wow. You are one sadistic cat.)
Many individuals' stage of development allow them to swallow this ego-feeding message whole (and ego-feeding it is - here's another quote from Davis: "What do you want to do with your Divine Power? Free all sentient beings? Awaken every sister and brother from the Dream? Dissolve the source of suffering? No. You want cars. And girlfriends, and boyfriends, and a new red bike and a big new house."). But the culture at large's centre of gravity is too high, especially in the critical (and lucrative) field of business, with its pesky incorporation of the Rational Stage's use of actual numbers. Positive Thinkers, characteristically, believed there was a way to overcome this, so they tried to legitimize their message.
Positivity Puts On Its Magic Science Cloak
In the last few decades, Positive Thinking began incorporating science - or at least seeming to. Motivational speaker and chiropractor Sue Morter tells her audiences that "science has shown without a shadow of a doubt" that we create our own reality. Luckily for such speakers, people tend not to read science, content to leave that to the experts. But Barbara Ehrenreich looks into everything for herself, and questions the abundant Magic Stage distortions with Rational Stage insistence on verifiable facts. Speaker and author Mike Hernacki writes in his book The Ultimate Secret to Getting Absolutely Everything You Want (1982) that our thoughts exert a gravitational force that attracts what we think about. Ehrenreich points out that thoughts aren't objects with mass - they're patterns of neuronal firing, and if they did exert a gravitational force "it would be difficult to take off one's hat." Motivational speaker Michael J. Losier claims that thoughts are actually vibrations, which come in two kinds: "Positive (+) and negative (-). Every mood or feeling causes you to emit, send-out or offer a vibration, whether positive or negative." Ehrenreich's rejoinder: "thoughts are not 'vibrations,' and known vibrations, such as sound waves, are characterized by amplitude and frequency. There is no such thing as a 'positive' or 'negative' vibration." Ah, but how about the "magnetic" power of thoughts (namely, you attract something in the physical world by thinking about it strongly enough), as espoused by The Secret, and others? Ehrenreich quotes Michael Shermer writing in Scientific American, who points out that the earth's magnetic field overpowers anything our neuronal firings would be able to put out by a ratio of, quite literally, ten billion to one. Well then how about quantum physics? Hasn't that mystical-seeming field overturned the boring old deterministic Newtonian rules and told us everything can happen and we can't really know anything anyway? Not really - these are misunderstandings, referred to by Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann as "quantum flapdoodle." And actual quantum rules apply on a scale vastly smaller than anything we can see or touch. Even the molecules involved in conducting our thoughts are a hundred times too big.
An especially entertaining critique comes when Ehrenreich interviews Dr. Martin Seligman, head of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. In his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment Seligman presents a "happiness equation": H = S + C + V, meaning your Happiness (H) is equal to your innate disposition - or Set (S) plus your Circumstances (C) plus any factors under your Voluntary (V) control. Ehrenreich pokes a hole in this with the simplest of questions: what are the units of measurement? And how do you measure your total happiness in mathematical units at all? "Happy thoughts per day?" she wonders. Seligman scowls and avoids giving a direct answer, telling Ehrenreich to google "beta weighting," which turns out to refer to coefficients of the predictors in a regression equation used to find statistical correlations between variables. Ehrenreich then comments:
Seligman had presented his formula as an ordinary equation, like E = MC2, not as an oversimplified regression analysis, leaving himself open to literal minded questions like: How do we know H is a simple sum of the variables, rather than some more complicated relationship, possibly involving “second order” effects such as CV, or C times V? But clearly Seligman wanted an equation, because equations add a veneer of science, and he wanted it quickly, so he fell back on simple addition. No doubt equations make a book look weightier and full of mathematical rigor, but this one also makes Seligman look like the Wizard of Oz.
Ehrenreich reaches a point of particular frustration when she expresses her discomfort with magical pseudo-science to a life coach at a speaker's conference in San Diego, who gives her a "kindly therapeutic look" and asks "'You mean it doesn't work for you?'" Ehrenreich despairs:
If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal tastes, then what kind of reality did she and I share? If it 'worked for me' to say that the sun rises in the west, would she be willing to go along with that, accepting it as my particular take on things? …there's something deeply sociable about science; it rests entirely on observations that can be shared with and repeated by others. But in a world where 'everything you decide is true, is true,' what kind of connection between people can there be? Science, as well as most ordinary human interaction, depends on the assumption that there are conscious beings other than ourselves and that we share the same physical world, with all its surprises, sharp edges and dangers.
The Facts Strike Back
Those sharp edges and dangers can't be wished away forever. In one of the book's later chapters, Ehrenreich charts how the cult of Positivity infected the business world and contributed to the recent economic collapse. The few workers and executives who clung to the Rational Stage's incorporation of facts found their warnings unheeded, dismissed and resented. Banking expert Steve Eisman, as described by business writer Michael Lewis, took flack for advising clients to sell their shares of a company's stock because the company was "a piece of shit. I didn't know that you weren't supposed to put a sell rating on companies. I thought there were three boxes - buy, hold, sell - and you picked the one you thought you should." In his book about his years as a senior vice president at Countrywide, Adam Michaelson describes how when he questioned the assumption that housing prices would never stop rising, he was told he worried too much. In 2006, Mike Gelband - Global Head of Fixed Income at Lehman Brothers warned CEO Richard Fuld about what looked to him like a real estate bubble about to burst. He was promptly turfed. Two years later, Lehman Brothers went belly-up, and a New York magazine article described Fuld in 2008, wandering through his Connecticut mansion at night, wracked with insomnia, replaying his firm's demise over and over again, unable to understand what went wrong. Unruly facts can pack a real wallop when you've spent years believing they're your puppets.
In Defense of Rationality
In spite of its various contributions to our lives, the Rational Stage sustains buffetings from many directions. Magical Stage thinkers try to supersede it by claiming we can mould the universe to fit our desires. People at the Mythic/Membership Stage trumpet the superiority of their group's sacred text in debates about evolution and global warming, claiming their god is strong enough to do anything, evidence be damned. Pluralists resent rationality's role in forming the unfair patriarchal industrial system, and denigrate logic as being only one way of looking at the world, no better than any other, undeserving of privilege. Integralists (rightly) criticize Scientific Materialism (Rational thinking taken to an extreme end) for its reduction of all spiritual states and human consciousness itself to the interaction of atoms (making humans, in Wilber's words, nothing more than "frisky dirt").
But as Ehrenreich says: "we got where we are, fanning out over the huge continent of Africa and from there all over the earth, through the strength of the knots we could tie, the sturdiness of shelters and boats, the sharpness of spearheads." Rationality is to be fervently praised for its ability to build bridges, develop sanitary and healing surgical procedures, design communication systems, and, ideally, set up laws and regulations that keep our complex financial trading systems from taking us so far out on a limb that we plummet to the hard, unforgiving ground and break our collective tailbone.
Each stage of development contributes to the vast array of human experience. The Magic Stage gives us unfettered imaginative fancies, making our childhoods rich and popular entertainment thrilling. The Mythic/Membership Stage binds us into social groups and gets us taking care of at least some of each other. The Rational Stage lets us learn how to navigate the world of facts, danger and sharp edges. The Pluralistic Stage has us to broaden the boundaries our of previous groups, striving to make sure we treat everyone fairly. And the Integral Stage allows every stage to occupy its appropriate place without letting any of them usurp another's territory. Even though the Rational Stage isn't at the top of the ladder, it's still to be greatly valued. It's necessary, though not sufficient, for our material well being and indeed, for our very survival as individuals and a species.