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September 06, 2006

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Jamie G

I hate to be a party pooper, but Gladwell's overstating it somewhat. Yes, our subconscuious thoughts can affect our performance. The question is, how much?

Let's use a less inflammatory example - sporting performance. Good mental coaching could improve my performance a bit, but no matter how much I believe it, or how positively I feel about myself, I will never be a professional footballer, for example. My body simply hasn't got the required level of performance, and I haven't spent enough time developing muscle memory and ball skills...you see my point. Just as all people have a ceiling to their realistic sporting performance, they likewise have a ceiling to their intellectual endeavour. I know we'd rather think of everyone's potential as unlimited (a sort of us as god heresy), biology isn't that egalitarian, I'm afraid - a fact that the bible seems to recognize.

This all reminds me of the famous quote attributed to Partick Thistle manager John Lambie. One of his strikers was concussed in a challenge, and the physio told Lambie that the striker didn't even know who he was - lambie's response was: 'Great, tell him he's Pele and get him back on'. Whether the striker really believed he was Pele, and whether or not this boosted his performance, is not recorded.

Positive thinking is a recurrent theme in self-help books - and there's no doubt that we need hope and vision if we are to achieve anything. But there's a very real limit to what positive thinking can achieve alone. If anything, this taps into the Hollywood fantasy of: 'if you only beleive it, and try hard enough, you can achieve anything'. The two problems with this position are that achieving is usually seen in terms of material success and worldly ambition, and also that it stigmatizes those at the bottom of the social pile (they didn't believe and didn't try hard enough), giving us a psychological mechanism for ignoring massive social inequality (the rich deserve their lot because of their hard work, the poor should try harder).

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