The clinical version of the well-established ability of beliefs to create their own reality is the placebo effect. The size of this effect can be considerable: a meta-analysis of research studies of the effectiveness of FDA-approved antidepressant medications found that fully 75% of those drugs’ benefit could be attributed to the placebo effect. The Power of Positive Thinking, a folksy collection of anecdotes by a Protestant minister, was initially dismissed by the mental health community as unscientific and potentially harmful. We now know that if anything, Norman Vincent Peale understated the case – not only can we derive real benefit from adopting an optimistic attitude, going a step further and maintaining patently false beliefs about ourselves (e.g., refusing to acknowledge that we have a dread disease) can actually improve both our mental and physical health.
The placebo effect doesn’t just apply to health outcomes. Every year self-professed audiophiles spend millions on premium speaker cables and electronic gadgets they swear noticeably improve the listening experience despite consistently being proved wrong by double blind tests. Product marketing in general has been described as exploiting the placebo effect by instilling in consumers questionable beliefs about product benefits. Business leaders stretch market analyses to paint a rosy picture of their companies’ health; lobbyists cherry pick facts to boost their clients’ perceived importance and need for help; politicians spin issues to curry favor with their constituents. Given the profusion of public and private agendas, the fudge-ability of facts and the abundance of human credulity, it’s reasonable to wonder whether there is any limit to the degree to which subjective reality can be constructed with impunity.
Cultural commentators have now and again wondered the same thing. The classic reference is Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which the deception proceeds quite far before being exposed through the innocence of children. Modern audiences might be better able to relate to Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel Being There, known mostly from the Peter Sellers film. The lead character rises improbably from a simple gardener to a media maven and respected foreign policy expert purely on others’ insistence on reading into his empty utterances a profundity that Chauncey Gardiner isn’t even capable of understanding, let alone intending. The story fascinates because it is simultaneously preposterous… and plausible.
As allegories, these two tales make their point by stretching our susceptibility to deception (especially self-deception) to an extreme. To be sure, many false beliefs hold up for long periods of time, and some are never overturned. But others, perhaps most, enjoy just a short period of influence before they – and the beta realities they sustain – collapse. It is as if alpha reality is sitting on the sidelines, monitoring beta reality and allowing it to stretch the truth only so much before it finally says, “Now you’ve gone too far,” and wrests control away. There is a continuous tension between the reality created by our beliefs and the objective world, and if that tension reaches a certain threshold, the two realities snap into alignment, often abruptly.
OD borrows a term from the stock market to describe the act by which alpha reality periodically pulls beta reality toward it. The price of a stock has both alpha components grounded in objective reality (its “fundamentals:” total assets, debt-to-equity ratio, etc.) and beta components representing the vagaries of belief (newsletter hype, market buzz, etc.). When beta factors cause a stock to be valued at a price that differs too much from its objective value, it undergoes a correction – the collective belief of its value (its market price) is pulled in the direction of its objective value (Figure 1).
This phenomenon occurs not just with stocks, but is an action to which virtually all our beliefs are subject. The correction is the mechanism by which alpha reality exerts its influence on our beliefs and creates the boundary that encloses and limits the world created by them.
Freud used the hydraulics metaphor to explain how the psyche works. Pressure builds up, creates tension and instability, and if it reaches a critical threshold, a triggering event can lead to a sudden explosive release. We use the same metaphor for understanding the tension between inaccurate representations and objective reality. We describe the deviation of a stock’s price from its objective value as a bubble. Extending the metaphor to any belief that strays from objective truth, we sometimes refer to the bubble as a spin zone or as wiggle room and describe its contents as froth. If the bubble gets too big, it can burst, resulting in a reset of the belief.
The correction is OD’s defining action; a learning feedback loop that keeps alpha and beta reality in loose alignment. The following are all examples of corrections:
- Discovering that the earth is round, not flat
- Drilling at the spot specified by the petroleum geologist and discovering you missed the oil pocket by 120 feet
- Finding that a company’s (e.g., Enron’s) books have been “cooked” and do not accurately represent its financial health
- Reaching in your pocket for your car keys and discovering they’re not there
- Confirming through DNA testing of human remains found in the cellar of a home in Yekaterinburg, Russia, that it was indeed the site of the assassination of the family of the last czar
- Learning that your heretofore presumed faithful spouse is having an affair
In each of the above cases, a false belief (beta fact) is adjusted toward its objectively (alpha) true value, or a theory is confirmed. Alpha reality has beta reality on a leash within whose length it is free to roam, but if it strays too far and the leash goes taut, alpha reality jerks it back. The correction is alpha reality’s “heel” command to beta reality.
Of course, when a belief is changed, it’s not always to what is objectively true. Your suspicion that your spouse is cheating may be incorrect. But belief adjustments are more often in the direction of objective truth (i.e, toward alpha facts) than not.
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