In my post on How to become a fake martial arts master, I used one little term a bit incorrectly, and someone called me on it. The term was “subjective validation”, and while I do not feel that I used it terribly wrong, I did not use it in the precise sense, and so I will post here on the term, and a little bit on why I use it.
Subjective validation is a human habit of taking two or more unrelated things or events, and insisting that they are related events because of a personal bias. An example would be that if a picture fell off of the wall, and your Uncle Fred died last week, and your personal bias is that ghosts exist, you may decide that it was the ghost of Uncle Fred who knocked the picture off of the wall. There is no real way to prove or disprove that Uncle Fred knocked the picture off of the wall, and so without necessarily thinking of it in such an open way, you will feel generally safe in telling whoever may be in the room that Uncle Fred knocked the picture off of the wall.
It is this nearly universal human habit to “connect the dots” that allows such people as John Edward and his like to make so much money from convincing people that they can communicate with the dead. They start with a broad generality, and start throwing things out. Most people in such situations will notice the correct guesses, and somehow ignore all of the misses. I find it strange, but it happens over and over. And the people who fall for it are not necessarily uneducated. The people who pay these psychics come from all walks of life and all levels of education.
As this is a martial arts blog, I am going to get a bit closer to our field of study, but continue to look at the way in which subjective validation is used in the martial arts world.
Suppose you see a martial arts master teaching a class, and he insists that he can knock you down without touching you, kill with a mere touch, and project his Qi though the human body. You want to believe in this power. He stands a student up and moves into position behind the student. He places his hand on the student’s back, quite gently, and then gives a shout. Then the student lifts his shirt, and you see it. Right in the middle of the student’s chest is a big red hand print! Your mind races – “it has to be real! The master used his right hand on the student’s back, and although the image on the chest is a left hand, that is EXACTLY how it would come through if the power traveled though the body! This is real, it is legit!”
I was at a demonstration where this is precisely what happened. And for a moment, the thoughts listed above were the thoughts running through my mind, as they were probably running through the minds of the other students in the room as well. I had the excuse of the naiveté of youth on my side (I was about nineteen at the time…), but there were people there of many different age groups there as well, and they were just as amazed as I.
I wanted to believe in super powers, and to this day I wish they were real. But they are not. If you look closely at the run on thought, you will notice that my mind glossed right over the exact explanation for this amazing stunt. After all, the master did have two hands, a right AND a left. We saw the hand print; we made our assumptions, and paid this idiot like everyone else he did this for. We even watched the hand print as it faded, so we knew it was not make up, so it had to be Qi, right? Or maybe it was just that someone slapped the student with a left hand prior to his entering the room. Yeah…why didn’t we think if that before we gave our money away.
Subjective validation occurs on a deep level, and it does so without thought, and it is closely related to the Forer effect. The Forer effect is named after Bertram Forer and is based on an experiment he conducted in 1948. He gave all of his students a personality test, and gave them the results stating that they had been individually assessed. In fact, the results he gave them were identical.
“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.”
The students reported, in high numbers, that the results were accurate. “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you”…don’t we all! The fact is, in varying degrees, everything quoted above could apply to any individual.
For subjective validation, the one who engages in it connects the dots. In the case of a martial arts master using the natural human tendency of subjective validation to deceive people, he will make no direct claims about the particular event. He will simply claim the he will give a demonstration of the awesome power of Qi. Then comes one parlor trick or another and simply smile and wait for those who came to see him to make the connection on their own. The master is relatively safe, as the majority of the people who come to see him either already believe, or really want to believe. Many of those who claim to be skeptics secretly hope one day to be proven wrong. The stronger the desire in the individual is to be proven wrong; the harder the individual will work to find the meaning behind the demonstration, the proof of Qi power. They will work to validate the claims of the master, even if they went in doubting, if on some level they still want to believe. This is what gives the so called masters a degree of safety in making such absurd claims. If the majority of the people there want to believe, they will believe. They will play the game of connect the dots, they will find anything that supports their preconceived idea of the reality behind the demonstration, and they will put together what will seem to them to be a reasonable explanation, and follow through with it.
If a demonstration from a martial arts master has several possible explanations, and is presented as having a mystical basis, and you want to believe in magic, your mind will strip out everything which disproves the magic theory, and will focus intently upon that which supports the outcome you hope for.
Horoscopes are believed for the same reason. People from all walks of life believe in them, in spite of the simple reality that the planets and stars only look the way they do from Earth. Any other place in the galaxy, and everything becomes different. Yet, on a daily basis, people will read the horoscope with great anticipation to see what the day has in store for them. They believe so strongly in our unique cosmic perspective that they feel it has a profound impact on their fate.
It is the hope that these masters possess super powers that gives subjective validation its real hold and power. In my article “How to be a fake martial arts master”, I mentioned looking for little coincidences and giving some leading information, and without directly claiming such powers, lead the students to believe that you made it happen. Once the master gains this type of understanding from a student, it is easy for him to press things a bit further and have the students doing all of the work to make sure that they believe, even when demonstrations fail. They will find a way to believe.
We all have a deeply ingrained ability to see patterns, even when no patterns exist. This is how we came to see the constellations. Some people insist that something as easy to see as pure chance is concrete evidence of fate.
The pseudo-masters of the martial arts take full advantage of these human habits. Whether consciously or not, they understand that you are going to be a willing accomplice in their act. You want to believe, and this desire to believe is going to cause you to use subjective validation while you witness the demonstration and personal bias afterwards. You will believe it then and there, and justify this belief in the face of any argument after. If you had gone so far as to actually tell anyone ahead of time that you believe in this sort of thing, your mind will race to validate the performance as being proof of your beliefs.
The powers of the mind being what they are, things can get very tricky for the “master”. The master is in a real danger of believing his own nonsense and lies and may end up not backing down in a situation where he really should. As in a video I posted earlier on this blog, if you forget that the super powers of the mystical martial arts are not real, real trouble can result.
In the past, I have done some of the tricks that the pseudo-masters use. I never tried to dupe people, rather, I would do it in the spirit of play, and when I would explain that it was really nothing, the people around would start validating the reality of what they thought they saw. They would also insist that I had some secret knowledge, and they I was being cagey in not telling them what they wanted to hear. If it is presented by someone who is supposed to have authority, such as a black belt, people will bite hook, line and sinker.
The sad thing to me is that our ability to trick ourselves is far greater than anything these guys can do to trick us. They give us generalities, and we treat is as a specific. We give these guys far too much authority.
If the super martial arts powers, moving people without touching them, the touch of death, levitation, mind control, all of that bilge worked, if it was real, the military would have it, I guarantee it. No one who had such skill would need to conduct seminars for money, because the government would take very good care of them. And our enemies would all be dead.
We are compelled to dream, and to hope, and to wish. It is part of our nature. But we need to rise above the stupidity, and understand things clearly. If you reach a point where you are not a willing participant in being deceived, then you will see these people for what they are – charlatans.