I can promise you another world…


You may have come across a speaker at a convention who promises you that anything is possible if you just try hard enough or that things will come your way if you adopt the right frame of mind – ‘wishful thinking’ I think it’s called. There are even speakers who propose they have uncovered some kind of secret that enables the discoverer to attract material goods and incredible luck to themselves just by imagining it.

Any rational mind would consider these claims to be unlikely at best and outrageous lies as worst. Of course, no scientific evidence is ever produced to back up these claims only stories that usually turn out to be apocryphal or highly selective if investigated.

They are the equivalent of the miracle stories from any holy book. So many people of authority have repeated them so often that people believe they must be true.

How did these stories come about? There is an ineluctable logic to their origination.

Let’s start with religion.

In the days before print, word-of-mouth was the dominant mode of communication and as any student of language will know, the relating of information through story is subject to any number of alterations, omissions, additions and hyperbole. Hyperbole is the important device here. As a creative person, when I tell a familiar story to a group of friends I will search for ways to tell the story so that it is more attractive to the listener and more enjoyable for me to tell it. One of the techniques I might use is metaphor – “she had transformed into a swan…”

We can immediately see how the use of a metaphor can be misinterpreted as being literal when spoken by an over enthusiastic speaker and misheard by a poorly educated listener.

Add to this the ineffable, unquantifiable nature of religion and the ground is fertile for storytellers to enhance their authority with even grander claims.

Now let’s move onto psychology.

The owner of a factory is constantly looking for ways to make the workers work harder or more efficiently. Many incentives might be tried including hiring a motivational speaker. These speakers are there to motivate the work force into executing some kind of action or embracing some kind of belief. Things may have started fairly modestly at first; if you do an activity like this instead of this you can save so many seconds off the procedure or if you adopt a mindset of what is possible rather than what is impossible solutions might be easier to come by.

Clearly, this approach had an effect, even if it was only the Hawthorne effect, so motivational speakers decided they could improve their own effectiveness by offering bigger claims, maybe the seconds saved were extended into minutes, maybe ‘impossible’ could be redefined – they were operating in a competitive market after all. And as they were operating more and more in the realm of psychology rather than physics, their claims could become more inflated without being seriously challenged.

Eventually, some motivational speakers decided that in order to differentiate themselves sufficiently from other speakers they would make the biggest claims of all and their version of psychology started to edge into the realm of religion and magic. Their brand was so powerful, so effective (they implied) that it could overcome any obstacle or barrier that life could throw at it (which is why a company had to hire them over another speaker who promised so much less).

Another example of this would be the crowd at an event sat watching the proceedings. Someone in the audience decides they want the best view of all so they stand up to watch the action. This position is a lot less comfortable for them than the sitting position but it gives them a distinct advantage. Of course, the people behind this person are now overshadowed and so they have to stand just to have the same view as before but in a more uncomfortable position. Eventually, the whole audience is forced to stand and any early advantage for the first standing members is lost and the result is an uncomfortable position for everyone.

So now we have a situation in the 21st century, supposedly dominated by science and big data, where people can be highly paid for making wild claims that can easily be disproved if anyone in science could be bothered to take the claims seriously enough but which less educated people are gullible enough to believe because it makes them feel better.

These high priests of motivational speaking are employing a trick that is as old as humanity itself – promise the congregation rewards in a world that is beyond their physical reach but is within the reach of their imaginations.

Well today we have rocket science to get to other worlds and you don’t get the rocket if you can’t do the science.