Understanding the World Through the Thomas Theorem
It’ s a genuine sociology precept called the Thomas Theorem. Formulated in 1928 by the sociologist William Isaac Thomas, it’ s been described by one eminent scholar as “probably the single most consequential sentence ever put in print by an American sociologist.” Sometimes called the Thomas Dictum, it is accepted by many researchers as scientific fact—or at least as a powerful way of comprehending the human condition. Here it is:
If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
The Thomas Theorum is no armchair theory. Law enforcement agencies use it to train officers in the handling of the mentally ill, and it’s been used effectively to explain everything from beauty contest outcomes to panic runs on bank deposits.
To me, the Thomas Theorem explains a lot: The healing power of religion, crowd behavior, a leader’ s ability to galvanize, the staying power of superstitions, Henry Ford’ s famous line that “whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you’ re right.”
In fact, Thomas may have gleaned inspiration from one of the Granddaddies of the self-help movement, a man who intuitively understood the Thomas Theorum decades before Thomas himself: James Allen.
A soft-spoken, retired Englishman who lived quietly in the southwest coastal town of Ilfracombe, Allen wrote a short book about positive thinking called As a Man Thinketh. The key theme of Allen’ s ground-breaking book is that one’ s thoughts determine one’ s circumstances. As Allen put it:
A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts … As the plant springs from, and could not be without, the seed, so every act of a man springs from the hidden seeds of thought, and could not have appeared without them.
And more to the point:
Most of us are anxious to improve our circumstances, but are unwilling to improve ourselves.
Oddly, Allen contradicted his own thesis when he decided that As a Man Thinketh was unworthy of publication. Fortunately, his wife disagreed, and the book spawned an industry now worth several hundred billion dollars each year.
You can view the complete text of As a Man Thinketh at sites such as the Project Gutenberg.
Allen died in 1912, long before witnessing the seminal effect his work had on today’ s gargantuan “wellness” industry. Allen wrote 19 books, many with undeniably broad appeal (it seems another becomes a bestseller in Japanese translation every year).
In my view, James Allen was to the self-help industry what Chuck Berry was to rock n’ roll music. Berry was influenced by many musicians, but he was the first to combine numerous traditional elements into an original, enduring new form.
Similarly, writers preceding Allen by decades—even centuries—covered comparable topics, but Allen crystallized the “power of positive thinking” concept in humble, poetic language utterly devoid of hucksterism (I haven’t read most of The Secret’s source texts, many of which preceded Allen and seem more focused on money-making—if you’ve read any, please share your thoughts).
Later self-help gurus—Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer and many others—owe a huge debt to Allen. And the industry is poised for even more explosive growth, analysts say. Economist Paul Pilzer, in a book entitled The Next Trillion, predicted the U.S. wellness industry will be worth a trillion dollars by 2010. So there’ s plenty of opportunity to do good by helping others be well.
But most important, the Thomas Theorum suggests that our own fortune and fulfillment are, indeed, largely the result of our beliefs. In fact, I feel a new Clark Rule coming on … wait a minute … yes, here it is! And with an easy-to-remember acronym: TTTTT™ (Tim’s Take on The Thomas Theorum):
“Make it real in your mind first, then real in fact.”
Or as Mark and I put it in The Prosperous Peasant, our own personal success parable released late last year: Conceivable Means Achievable.