Positive Thinking, the Just World and Victim Shaming

So...something with a rather academic title from me this time. Guess all these papers I've been reading have had an effect and somehow managed to make me even more geeky.

Anyway, a lot of people extol the power of positive thinking. A lot. Some go so far as to say that positive thinking can alter reality itself (with, of course, the odd nod to quantum mechanics - which I doubt they understand). Others stick to more conventional grounds, such as optimism being linked to better health.

I'm not going to argue with what the evidence says. I am, however, going to argue that there is a very dangerous current in "positive thinking": namely, it blames victims for their own plight. Victims by definition are largely or completely blameless for the bad things that happen to them - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

How does positive thinking blame victims?
Well, it doesn't outright turn round and say "It's your damn fault if bad stuff happens to you" - oh wait, it does. The foundations of positive thinking are that if you think happy thoughts, paste a smile on your face, and generally have a go-getting attitude to life, the world is yours on a silver platter. The corollary is that if you're depressed and your life is crap, you deserve it - because you're not thinking those happy thoughts and having that positive attitude to life! Never mind that said attitude puts the cart before the horse...people get depressed because bad things happen to them, not the other way around. Granted, you can get stuck in a rut that way, and I don't advocate wallowing in your own misery, but blaming people for being unhappy is kicking a person when they're down - it's not their fault and it accomplishes nothing.

The Just-World Phenomenon
Why would people do this, though? Because they're bastards? Because they're myopic? Probably a bit of both - it's a difficult question to answer and I'd imagine it would be even more difficult to test accurately.

The just-world hypothesis is that fundamentally, people want to believe (and probably do believe on some level) that the world is a just place, and that people get what they deserve - so good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, and obviously if someone has something bad happen to them, they deserved it on some level.

It's one of those things that makes me want to shake my head and sigh and utter platitudes of some sort, so here comes the obvious: the Law of Attraction is a lie, you can't test it that well, it's unfalsifiable, any predictions it should make (if it were, well, you know, an actual law instead of a crazy idea) are flatly contradicted by real life, bad things happen to good people and arseholes get all the fame and glory...

...Well, I could go on in the same vein for ages and ages, but such an attitude is very difficult to displace. I'd wager that you'd have to be on the receiving end of victim-blaming, or have blamed yourself, to understand this and to chuck that just-world attitude out of the proverbial window.

The very prospect of asking someone to inflict abuse upon themselves like that (and it is arguably abuse - it screws up your thinking), or to ask others to inflict abuse upon that person, is sickening.

On a less depressing note, how am I going to tie those two concepts together and pretend that this is a coherent blog post?!
I'll admit something here: I've paid a bit less attention to this last section than I really should have. I just assumed it would come naturally...maybe I should stop assuming things.

My best guess, I suppose, is that they're both somewhat connected: positive thinking says that if you think happy thoughts, good things will come to you. The just-world attitude says that if you're a good person, good things will come to you. Either way, you end up getting what you deserve for your virtue. The corollary? If you're sad, bad things will happen to you (positive thinking), and you will deserve it for being bad (just-world hypothesis).

This sounds rather stupid if you state it flatly, but you wouldn't believe how many people think this in some form or another, from 15-year-olds to 50-year-olds - and I've probably been a bit tame with my range.

I'm not trying to say that all positive thinking is bad. It's not. It's actually quite helpful. However, victim-blaming is not, and it's an unfortunate flip-side - a flip-side which doesn't have to be there if you accept an unjust world. That in itself - well, it's not pretty, but it's true, and ultimately you get a better world out of a bad truth than out of a good lie.