A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., and William Nesbitt, Ph.D.

Myth on the Mind

Be(lie)ve It or Not: Part Two

Specific theories of belief and their mythical and psychological origins

Posted Aug 09, 2017

Henry Fuseli / Wikimedia Commons
Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices
Source: Henry Fuseli / Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all heard the old saying, “you are what you eat.” To some extent we are also what we think and what we believe.  But just like good exercise must accompany good eating, and the difference between a dream and a vision is a plan, thought without action may also be ineffective.  Thoughts are powerful, and positive thinking will usually be better for us than negative thinking, but there is a difference between just wanting and thinking about being a millionaire and actually learning about and making wise financial choices that will help manifest that goal.  Want a cleaner world?  Start recycling.  Actions must express the belief. 

In our last column, which you might want to review, we looked at some of the broad connections among belief, mythology, and psychology.  Now, we will examine some concrete examples of belief as manifested in mythology and psychology. 

One theory manifesting connections among belief, psychology, and mythology is the Tinkerbell effect named for the fairy Tinker Bell of Peter Pan whose resuscitation depends upon the audience expressing their belief in fairies through clapping (because she is so small that she can only hold one feeling at a time, Tinkerbell is also a model for mood disorders and difficulties with emotional self-regulation).  The Tinkerbell effect refers to those things that exist only through imaginative acts and because people believe in them.  The Reverse Tinkerbell effect maintains that, somewhat paradoxically, the more people believe in something the more likely it is to disappear.  For example, if everyone in a group believes that the group is highly vigilant, individual group members may reduce their attention, thus lowering or erasing the overall level of group vigilance.  If everyone in a group believes that the harmony of the group is most important, individual group members may fail to pay attention to facts in order to conform to the group’s beliefs.  This type of groupthink can have detrimental effects on decision-making and behavior.

This ironic connection between belief and action in which a belief brings about exactly the opposite of what the believer wants reappears in the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy.  One of the most well-known examples is that of the Greek figure Oedipus from which Freud derived the name and idea for the Oedipus complex.  According to the myth, Laius is warned that he will one day be killed by his own son, Oedipus.  Thus, Laius abandons him outside of the city where he is eventually found, rescued, and raised by the king and queen of Corinth oblivious to his true identity and origins.  Oedipus is warned that he will one day kill his father and marry his mother, so he leaves for distant lands far away from the people whom he thinks are his mother and father.  His journey takes him to Thebes where he encounters a stranger, kills him, and marries his widow.  The stranger is Laius and the widow, of course, is Oedipus’ own mother. 

For further study, other instances of self-fulfilling prophecies can be seen in the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, various European fairy tales, and more recently in the story of Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars series.  Anakin desperately wants to save his the life of his pregnant wife Padme, whom he mistakenly believes is in danger.  He turns to the dark side and the Emperor’s instruction to gain knowledge he hopes will accomplish this.  Eventually, he mistakenly thinks he has killed her during his own fit of rage and this propels him further along the path of the dark side.  Ironically, her heartbreak over his changes and actions eventually does lead to her death, which was completely avoidable and of his own doing. 

One of Anakin’s issues is that even when it is clear that the Emperor is using Anakin for his own evil purposes that threaten the stability of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, Anakin refuses to see the truth because he suffer from true-believer syndrome—the dark side of belief.  Such fanatical, unquestioning loyalty even when personal experience shows otherwise and facts come out that demonstrate that the figure of that devotion may not be worthy of it, gives rise to fanaticism, fascism, tyranny, cult thinking, and the following of ineffective and unqualified leaders.  

No matter what you belief, belief is powerful stuff.