The Reality Distortion Field and the Empathy Cliff

My theme over the past several posts has been how we decieve ourselves:  Reality Enhancement, the Filter, and Inner Collapse.  To complete the series, I turn to the most extreme form of self-deception, the Reality Distortion Field.

The phrase was coined by one of Steve Jobs’ employees to describe how Jobs would simply will the facts to be other than they were, and will it so powerfully that others around him would see as he did, to such a degree that often the facts fell into line with Jobs’ willful perception of them.  Although a more apt term has never been found to describe it, the phenomenon is not unique to Jobs:  a person so strongly wills something to be true that (a) he actually sees the facts to be other than they are, and (b) those around him fall into line with his vision, and (c) this group delusion often overcomes the very facts themselves.

None of the other forms of self-deception actually do violence to the facts, warping into the opposite of the truth.  And while the other forms are common, almost universal, the RDF is rare:  few are so inwardly wilful, so self-centered, as to lie to themselves convincingly.

If step (a) were the whole picture, then RDF would be interesting only to psychologists, but step (b) is fascinating for anyone:  how does anyone acquire Jedi-like powers of mind control to cause others actually to see the clothes on the emperor?  Could such power be used for good?  What’s more, since an RDF acts on everyone around it, any one of us could accidentally wander into one.

The key to (b) seems to be the fact that all communication requires at least a bit of empathy.  Simply to understand a sentence, one has to reconstruct the sentence in one’s head and try for a moment to think what the speaker was thinking, to get inside of his head.  Normally we are able to run a kind of virtual mind inside of our own, rather as a computer can run a virtual operating system within the main operating system, and we keep the speaker’s thoughts separate enough from our own to avoid confusion.  But two things can short-circuit the separation.

The first is what I’ll call the Empathy Cliff.  Besides the simple fact of what someone says, he communicates his confidence and conviction by his phrasing, tone, expression, body language, time, and all the rest of the cues that go into personal communication.  As we recreate his thought inside our own head, we incorporate his conviction as part of the reconstruction.  If his conviction comes across as unlimited, as utter and without qualification, it becomes nearly impossible to reconstruct the thought in our heads as a tidily contained simulation separate from our own thoughts.  The reconstruction bursts its bounds, runs into our own thoughts, and we find ourselves thinking in line with him.  It’s as though the depth of his conviction creates a sheer cliff for our empathy to fall over.

This comes out in weird ways when someone is convinced of an absurdity:  a madman utterly convinced that an invisible monster is in the room right now can freak out the sane folks around him as it becomes difficult to stay in the real world while he’s talking.

But it’s not always a bad thing:  a man can gain so clear an insight into a truth that he takes on this magnetic effect by legitimate conviction.  Whereas we soon shake off the madman’s ravings as a bad dream, the sustained and consistent communications of one who has the truth can realign our vision such that we actually see the truth for ourselves in a stable way.  If his conviction has to do not some minor detail in life but an encompassing vision that is bigger than himself and bigger than his listeners, then he takes on the charisma of a John Paul II and changes the world for the better.  (Thanks for Jonathan Rensch’s senior oration for some the details in this last paragraph.)

I mentioned that the mental separation between our own thoughts and the thoughts of the speaker can be short-circuited in a second way as well—but it has nothing to do with the RDF, so I’ll leave it for another post.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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