David King, MSc, PhD
Writer, Teacher, and Health Psychologist


"We need not to be let alone. We need to be
really bothered once in a while. How long
is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something
real?" (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
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A Call for Waves; or, Why Ripples Aren’t Enough

by David King on September 16, 2013

wave As I sit down to write this, there are approximately 7,179,353,020 people living on the earth. By the time I finish writing these two sentences, that estimate will have changed to 7,179,353,128. That’s about a hundred more people in just a few seconds.

There is an interesting belief circulating the world – the belief that ripples are enough. In a previous office space, I had one of those motivational posters stuck on the wall. It depicted a water droplet striking calm water and creating ripples. Below the image was the word ACTION, and below that a phrase – It only takes a single thought to move the world. This poster sums up the belief to which I’m referring. It is the perspective that mere thoughts, simple cognitions of positivity, are enough to change the world. This belief has been expanded to include positive acts and behaviours. Even a smile, according to some, can make a big difference.

It’s a nice thought, undeniably. I think there was a time when I really believed it. But now, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

It’s a matter of logic, really, and a few erroneous assumptions. Firstly, this belief in the power of a single drop assumes that all individuals are susceptible to the influence of a thought or act initiated by another person. Although social scientists have demonstrated the power of our friends’ friends’ friends to exert some force on our daily mood and behaviour, there is nonetheless little evidence for any impact on our more enduring traits, such as openness to experience or narcissism – traits which in and of themselves are more meaningful predictors of socially relevant human behaviour. Furthermore, what evidence does exist for such psychological contagion is primarily based upon common social networks. There is less evidence for such an impact among strangers and members of distinct networks. Even if it should exist, who is to say that one act is enough? And from a purely logical perspective, how exactly does a thought exert its force on another individual? (I am open to possibilities here, but stay with me for a minute.)

Let’s take a step back, and return to the assumption that all individuals are susceptible to the influence of a single thought or act. Indeed, statistics lacking, there exist many close-minded people in the world, and many more whose perspectives and worldviews are wrought with negativity – even bigotry and hatred and fear. I cannot imagine that a single act, never mind a single thought, is enough to cure the average bigot of her racism, or the average homophobe of his hatred. There may be a few examples here and there, but drops alone are no match for social trends and movements of this kind.

To compound the problem, social progress is often stalled by ignorance and lack of intelligence, and there exist many unintelligent and uneducated people in the world. Case in point, a 2007 Gallup poll indicated that 44% of Americans did not believe in evolution. It’s a poll that’s made its rounds in the media, but let’s consider it in the context of drops. Not only are there millions of thoughts floating around about the merits of evolution, they’ve been floating around for well over a century. They’re also backed up by scientific evidence, and this evidence has been written in books and taught in schools. Thoughts and actions abound, yet the ripples seem to have reached a limit.

I know what you’re thinking – there are opposing thoughts and acts out there, ripples butting up against ripples and stalling progress. But that’s my other criticism of the ripples belief. We cannot assume the unbounded influence of a single thought or act when there are opposing thoughts and acts making ripples of their own (even Hitler, after all, made some pretty big ripples). And what if some of those negative and hateful drops are bigger than the positive ones? What if more of the negative thoughts manifest as behaviour and action? (And indeed, this is often the case.)

The belief that drops can change the world only holds up if (1) the large majority of ripples are originating from positive thoughts and acts (and similarly, the most positive ripples are not being neutralized by the negative ones), (2) the large majority of people in the world are susceptible to positive thoughts and acts (i.e., open-minded), and (3) the impact of ripples extends beyond transient thoughts and emotions to significantly impact enduring traits. With over 7 billion people in the world, imagine the number whose thoughts and acts are needed to change the world. Let’s engage in a little conjecture, and conceive that even 50% of the world must engage in positive thoughts on a regular basis to affect great change. That’s about 3.59 billion people, who must not only achieve some kind of threshold of positive thinking to make a difference, but also contend with the other 3.59 billion people whose thoughts are of a more negative persuasion. Not to mention they should also be educated, decent, and kind, if their thoughts are to have the desired effect. Even if we’re more liberal and consider that a third of the drops must be positive, that’s still a whopping 2.39 billion of us.

In a previous post, Self-Actualization: The Struggle Eternal, I stated that, “ripples aren’t enough. I need waves. Big ones. Tsunami-sized. Nothing less would be satisfying. Nothing less would offer relief.” And that’s what I’m advocating for here. By no means am I stripping the individual of his or her ability to change the world. To the contrary, I am suggesting that simple thoughts and acts are not enough. Long abandoned is the village way of life, and with it the potential for mere thoughts and small acts to affect large-scale change. The world is now our village, and drops become easily lost.

I’ve come to the conclusion that today, the ripples perspective is a bit of a cop-out. We let ourselves off the hook by fantasizing about the potential unseen consequences of our daily thoughts and behaviours. Imagined beautifully, I’m quite sure, but in most cases just imagined. We dream of our day-to-day behaviours and actions rippling across the globe and throughout time, somehow contributing to something larger than ourselves. Smiles curing judgment and kind gestures changing lives; teachable moments saving the world. We fantasize, for example, that changing our Facebook profile picture to the marriage equality logo is going to raise the collective consciousness enough to make a difference; or that by boycotting vodka, a few Canadians are going to influence the Russian political landscape. It’s understandable, too. After all, most of us want to make a difference; yet as the world grows so too does the apparent difficulty and practicality with such a notion.

But throughout history, every great change has required more than a single drop; much more than a mere thought. In every historical instance of progress, someone had to turn that thought into action. Someone had to stand up, take the lead, and make waves. There have been a number of wave-makers throughout history – Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Noam Chomsky, Mother Teresa, Harvey Milk, Desmond Tutu, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill, to name only a few. We need more of them, for to stand a chance against the negative drops (or worse, the waves of hatred and fear and close-mindedness), only serious actions will suffice. Mere thoughts won’t stop sea levels from rising, or resolve homophobia, or end animal cruelty.

I am not denying the individual of his or her ability to produce change. I’m not even denying the potential for mere thoughts to make a difference on some level. They help with the small stuff. And without a doubt, each of us plays a significant role in the larger global ecosystem, as we consume and waste and displace. But in a sea of 7 billion people, drops just aren’t enough to affect great change. We all need to try a little harder. And we need to stop leaving it up to someone else.

So this is a call for waves. Gather your strength; get your drops in order. It’s time to break through the levees…

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