August 17, 2011

Lady Gaga Versus The Secret

If you don't know what The Secret is, consider yourself lucky to have escaped one more instance of the sort of pseudo-mystical self-help craze that mostly helps the author. If you don't know who Lady Gaga is, you don't actually live on this planet, so please leave a comment in the interest of furthering human knowledge. If you've been tormented by the desire to know which of these media darlings would win in a head-to-head battle, your life is about to get so much better.

The battleground:

Just like Lady Gaga herself, her motivational advice is controversial. Essentially, she suggests that images of success (e.g., trophies) can take the place of actual successes (i.e., more victories). So instead of going out and making it happen, we reflect on past or imagined glory and do nothing. The symbol replaces the reality. On the other hand we have Rhonda Byrne, the Australian TV ad executive who wrote The Secret. A perpetual bestseller, The Secret advocates creative visualization, which involves creating vivid and compelling pictures of your heart's desire, with the aim of drawing this vision toward you. If you believe and even act as if your accomplishments have already happened, Byrne argues, then happen they will.

The test:
The first clear voice on this issue of fantasy was that of Sigmund Freud, who wrote about the "irrational libido," the part of our psyche that lives for immediate pleasure. To accomplish this, the libido uses what Freud termed a "primary process," where it "produces a memory image of an object needed for gratification in order to reduce the frustration of not having been gratified yet." So we imagine everything from revenge to accomplishment and then, without doing anything more, receive pleasure from the image alone. When we mature, we put primary processes in check and graduate to "secondary processes," which deal with reason and reality. So as adults, we are able to delay gratification and endure the pain necessary to bring our plans to fruition. In short, Freud is definitely a Lady Gaga fan. Images and symbols, such as trophies, may be pleasurable to gaze upon but they can prevent us pursuing the real thing.

Alright, psychoanalysis is more than a century old and not exactly cutting edge science. But we can do better. Over the last decade, Gabrielle Oettingen of New York University has done a string of studies that test the power of fantasy on everything from romantic success to getting your dream job. Her basic design is to have three groups of subjects: a fantasy group, a control group, and a mental contrasting group. Fantasy groups are just that: essentially, proponents of The Secret who imagine they already have their desired outcome. The control group is the baseline, people left alone to their own devices. Then there is the mental contrasting group, basically following a form of Lady Gaga's recommendation. They mentally contrast by fantasizing about what they want but then immediately afterwards compare where they are now with where they want to be. So if they want a better relationship, they fantasize about being with that gorgeous guy or gal but then deeply reflect afterwards on how they don't have him or her. The mental contrasting group always ends by contrasting fantasy with reality.

Who wins? Lady Gaga or The Secret?

The answer. I only wish the stakes were higher.

The best things come across Twitter. Thanks to Sigrid Ellis for this one.


Greg Laden said...

I like the idea of just getting the trophy and not doing an of the work. Will there be a cash award?

D. C. said...

If you don't know who Lady Gaga is, you don't actually live on this planet, so please leave a comment in the interest of furthering human knowledge.

You asked. I've seen the name about, but never been interested enough to look up the reference.

And, now that the subject comes up, still don't give a damn.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Greg, between Lady Gaga and the author of the secret, how much cash is left for the rest of us?

D. C., I have to assume that you've at least figured out from context that she's a musical artist with some interesting clothing choices. I doubt you're alien enough to have missed that. :)

D. C. said...

I got the music from TFA, never looked for the clothing (although the stage name hints in that direction.)

Bear in mind that I'm one of those (very) rare people who doesn't even own a TV and mostly has flash blocked in the web browser.

Between shelves full of world music, jazz, 60s rock, big band, classical, and Pandora I don't get much exposure to current popular music either.

But I do RTFA.