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Exploring the truth behind inspirational sayings

“Your attitude determines your reality.”

“Fear is the only thing holding you back.”

“Gratitude is the key to happiness.”

Self-help is full of such pithy statements. I bet you’ve seen hundreds of them. They’re usually presented as great insights, key ideas, or even as fundamental principles of the universe. Almost all of these ideas can be shown to be false with just a little analysis. But before we dismiss them all, we need to delve into an arcane-sounding question:

What do we really mean by ‘true’?

This question is at the core of epistemology — a long-standing branch of philosophy. And though it may seem incredible, there are at least half a dozen respected answers to the question ‘what do we mean when we say something is true?’

Correspondence theory of truth

In the modern world, we are most familiar with the correspondence theory of truth, which is most popular in mainstream science. It claims that our theories and models are true if there is a correspondence between our models and the phenomena they claim to describe.

Take Newton’s second law of motion as an example:

force = mass \times acceleration

The correspondence theory says that the theory is true because there really are masses in the real world, and forces too, and that the force required for a given acceleration is proportional to the mass. In other words, the parts of Newton’s theory correspond to phenomena in the real world.

Newton’s second law holds true for all day-to-day phenomena like bowling balls and car crashes. But at extremely high speeds we need to take account of relativistic effects. So perhaps we turn to one of Einstein’s relativistic equations of motion instead.

F = \frac{d}{dt}\left(\frac{mv}{\sqrt{1 - \frac{v^2}{c^2}}}\right)

They have a better correspondence with what happens in the real world, even when objects are moving at lightning speeds, and so we say that they are more true. Einstein’s equations take account of the speed of the object as a proportion of the speed of light. They really do have better correspondence with reality. They really are more true. But when the object in question is travelling at day-to-day speeds, the object’s speed as a proportion of the speed of light is nearly zero, and so Einstein’s equations simplify down and show that Newton’s equations are extremely close approximations.

Let’s take a simpler example. Say we have a theory that “to turn on the light in any given room, you should flick the light switch”. This theory is clearly true, most of the time. But the theory is also inadequate, or even untrue in certain situations. For example, how often have you tried to flick a light switch during a power cut, or when a fuse had blown, or when a lightbulb was broken?

So if we wanted a better theory we might try something like this:

In most modern buildings, built to standard building codes as applied in the majority of developed countries on the planet Earth, where the lighting is provided by means of an electrical circuit, assuming that the power to the building is fully in operation, that the electrical circuit has been well maintained, that the bulb is in good working order, and the local power grid…

Just like with Einstein’s theory, the more we try to make the theory truer the more we have to include a representation in our theory of all the different parts of the real world which might be relevant. Our theory needs to correspond with the structure of the real world, in all it’s complex glory.

Pragmatic theory of truth

In contrast, the pragmatic truth criterion is closely linked to the functionalist perspective, which asserts that the truth of a statement depends on its practical consequences and the utility it offers within a specific context. Functionalism places a strong emphasis on the role of language in guiding action and decision-making.

To know whether something is true we must have first established a goal. If believing in and following a given theory leads us to the successful completion of that goal then the theory is true — according to a pragmatist.

Let’s return to Newton. Imagine a forensic investigator examining the scene of a car crash, using Newton’s theories to reach her conclusions. These theories never let her down. They always permit calculation of the correct answers for all practical purposes. She never reaches the wrong conclusion. So from a pragmatic perspective, Newton’s laws are true in this context. They’re not mere approximations. They’re not poor cousin’s of Einstein’s equations. They simply are true in this context because they permit our investigator to acheive her goal of finding out how the crash happened.

Adopting a pragmatic theory of truth brings another interesting side-effect. If a theory is only true to the extent that it engenders effective action towards a specified goal, then it would make sense that simpler theories which are easier to remember and apply are in some sense truer. William James, one of the grandfathers of psychology, recognised this. He knew, as any psychologist should, that the human ability to choose amongst a huge number of subtly different and complex theories, to pick exactly the right one for the current situation, and then to apply that complex theory accurately, is … limited. Simpler theories are often easier to remember and apply. They therefore might be expected more often to lead to the desired outcome. And so they are ‘truer’ all other things being equal.

Those self-help theories

Okay, that’s quite enough navel-gazing philososphy for one blog post. Let’s get back to one of those claims self-help gurus love so much. Earl Nightingale, one of the most influential self-help authors and speakers of the last hundred years, often repeated the claim that our attitude determines everything in our lives.

“It is our attitude toward life that determines life’s attitude toward us. We get back what we put out.”

— Earl Nightingale

He paraphrased this insight at least half a dozen ways, but each time the claim was clear and uncompromising. Taken as a literal, scientific description of people’s lives this is clearly false. We do not necessarily get back what we put out. Millions of people suffer violence, ill health, or just plain old bad luck for reasons entirely outside their control. It would be trivially easy to show that Nightingale’s claim is untrue. But again, what do we mean by ‘true’?

Such a theory plainly fails when measured against the correspondence truth criterion. It fails to take into account all manner of relevant circumstances that have a bearing on a person’s life. It’s too simple. The theory doesn’t model the various parts which correspond to the different phenomena of life.

But, belief (or not) in such a statement bears a striking resemblance to what psychologists call locus of control. Locus of control refers to an individual’s beliefs regarding the degree to which they have control over the outcomes and events in their life. If we believe our successes and failures are largely down to our own actions and decisions we have internal locus of control. If we attribute our successes and failures primarily to external factors beyond our control, such as luck, fate, or external circumstances we have external locus of control.

We have lots of evidence that clearly shows that people who have an internal locus of control are happier with their lives, more content with their jobs, and more successful at various different endeavours. There are hundreds of studies on it and the overall message couldn’t be clearer: believing that you are in control of what happens to you (perhaps believing that it’s down to your ‘attitude’) is a good thing — assuming you want to be happy and successful. And the strength of the relationship is pretty impressive (correlation r values in the region of .3 for several outcomes)1Ng, T. W. H., Sorensen, K. L., & Eby, L. T. (2006). Locus of control at work: a meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(8), 1057-1087.

As I said, we are all now most familiar with the correspondence theory of truth, and so of course we are inclined to say it isn’t literally true that your own attitude is the only determinant of your state in life. Many people really are victims of circumstance, having been brought up in poor conditions or having been bullied, abused, or traumatised. But assuming that your goal is to be happier in life, to succeed, and to enjoy your job, then it is pragmatically true if you desire success, happiness, job satisfaction etc. That is, holding this belief increases your chances of getting those things.

And since a pithy statement like “your attitude determines your reality” is more likely to be remembered than some essay-length theory, and is therefore more likely to guide successful action, we might even say that the short glib version is more true than a nuanced version.

Brief, catchy, kind-of-right-ish rules for living might be more true than we usually admit. It all depends on how you define truth.

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