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Understanding the World Through the Thomas Theorem

graduation_cap_on_books.jpgWorking on a doctoral thesis has sent me on a book learnin’ kick, and the other day I stumbled across something that, to my mind, reveals much about how the world works.

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.”

Closer to my heart, the Thomas Theorem suggests that self-help books advocating the power of belief are basically right.gold_within_2.jpg

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).

rejoicing_at_sunset_2.jpgIn 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.

See also:

What We Really Need to be Happy

Life Without Principle (or Interest)

10 Comments to Understanding the World Through the Thomas Theorem

On Feb 25, 2008, J.D. commented:

Your comment about The Secret seems like it’s orphaned from a previous edit. I’m not sure what it means! :)

This is a great post. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my personal change in attitude led to so many of the things I’ve accomplished over the last few years. Sure, there’s lots of hard work and luck thrown into the mix, but so much of it boils down to how I view the world.

On Feb 25, 2008, by Tim commented:

Thanks, J.D. If you haven’t already read As a Man Thinketh, do yourself a favor and grab it now. It’s really short, and available in those tiny “back pocket” additions (you can safely pass on The Secret).

Can’t make it to the writer’s group meeting tonight. Give my best to all!

On Feb 25, 2008, Daily Links: Inspiration Edition ? Get Rich Slowly commented:

[…] for visiting!My friends Tim and Mark at Soul Shelter posted a great article last week about how what we think creates our reality. Though I think wishful-thinking books like The Secret are hogwash, I do believe that our thoughts […]

On Feb 27, 2008, Shanti @ Antishay Ventenne commented:

This is a great post. I’ve been to this site once or twice before but I think I’ll subscribe :)

I have devoted much of my life thus far to thinking about spirituality and the power of the being aware – the power of thought. When I first saw The Secret (on DVD) I found it to be boring and drawn out, poorly presented, and full of get-rich sorts of messages. My dad knows some of the guys who wrote The Secret personally and I decided to talk to them about it. I later found out that the documentary was originally set to be aired on ABC as a two-night special. This explains a lot of the simple explanations, big claims and get-rich sort of talk.

In my own life I have found the Secret to actually be a brilliant compilation on the concept of the power of the mind, although their use of “energy” is somewhat vague. After talking with Joe V, he disclosed to me that the way the Secret has been taken by the mainstream media is very depressing. We decided through a number of talks that it wasn’t really energy, it was more like resonance, that they were trying to explain.

I thoroughly believe that what we think will be. And not in some ridiculous way like “if I think that I will have this house next year, I will.” But I do believe that our thoughts define ourselves and define who we can be. I wrote a whole post about it in January at my blog (the server keeps crashing – sorry if it’s down when you go!).

This post was a great expansion on a more simple view of thoughts and how they define us. Thank you! The history you’ve given is great.

On Feb 27, 2008, by Tim commented:

Thanks, Shanti, for the kind words, and the insight into The Secret. I’ve been meaning to buy a couple of the nineteenth century books on which that work is based, and when I get around to it I’ll post my impressions.

Looking forward to viewing your site (it was down just now). Hope you’ll visit here again!

On Aug 12, 2009, Rick commented:

There a site with all of James Allen’s works, including As a Man Thinketh at http://www.jamesallenlibrary.com.

On Dec 15, 2009, Natalie commented:

I am writing my final paper for Rhetoric I (in college) over the Thomas Theorum and found your post to be very insightful.
Thank you!

On Dec 15, 2009, by Tim commented:

You are most welcome – thanks for stopping by! Tim

On Sep 27, 2011, Shylock commented:

I have been browsing through websites to know the Thomas Theorem. Reading this post helped me a lot. I am writing a thesis on Sociological Interaction and Thomas’ theory is an important part of it. Thanks.

On Sep 27, 2011, by Tim commented:

Glad it helped! Thanks for stopping in :)

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