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“Don’t Say ‘Ghost’!”

Seeing things where they are not: the power (and danger) of suggestion.

That admonishment, spoken so hastily—and firmly—after my use of that word, caught me off guard. The speaker was the chief operations officer of a large corporation, and the subject we were talking about had nothing to do with the paranormal. I had been describing a computer glitch in which “ghost data” had somehow found its way back into their company’s records. Surely they would understand that my offhand use of a “spooky” word was not, in any way, turning our business discussion into something supernatural.

I later discovered that the building we were in at the time of that discussion was rumored to be haunted (one story I hope to share in a later blog). Indeed, I had already been working with their IT department on several head-scratching encounters that might have easily been dismissed as a “ghost” in the network. The concern of the higher-ups, however, was not so much that we would anger the spiritual entities that resided in the building—it was more that we would “speak them into being”.

Switching gears, let me tell you about a good friend who is haunted in a similar way…but by something completely different. Let me tell you about Erika (not her real name).

Erika was raised in a family who believed that racism existed everywhere. Any time somebody stared at her funny, it was because they were racist. When life treated her unfairly, she saw racism. When somebody was a jerk to everybody else in the room, they were a jerk…but the moment they turned their unpleasant behavior toward Erika: racism!

At some point in the past, somebody had suggested to Erika that she was being affected by “racism”. And it stuck in her mind. In the same way that every groan of an old building suddenly becomes “the ghost” after people are told the place is haunted, Erika now saw every single unpleasant interaction in life as a direct result of her skin color.

One day, while out shopping with my wife, Erika had an epiphany. Everybody she had interacted with that day had been “nice” to her. Our families were on vacation at the time in one of the most predominantly white, rural areas of the country. Over the past few years, Erika’s news outlets, her social media culture, her work culture, and her friends had all told her that she would encounter “racism” if she went to this location. But when she got there…none of that manifested. That day, something inside Erika broke…

Both of these stories are the result of one thing: the power of suggestion.

There is an anecdote about two travelers moving into a city and asking their neighbor what the people are like there. The neighbor asks, “what were the people like where you left?” One describes a population or rude and unpleasant people. The other describes a population who was more like family than neighbors. The new neighbor tells them both, “The people here are the same.” When asked how two completely different populations can be the same, he replies, “people are going to be what you expect them to be.”

Suggestion is a powerful tool, but also a dangerous one. I will not go into the detailed mechanics of its workings, but suffice it to say, if one suggests too often that a workplace is “haunted”, every creak and groan, every scuttling mouse or scraping branch, is interpreted as “the ghost”. Since the beginning of 2020, the company in question had seen more than half of its office staff quit due to a certain irrational fear that had been introduced to the workforce (I’m sure you can guess what that is). Suffice it to say, the higher-ups were not about to allow anything else that might encourage more to leave.

In the same way, Erika had been taught by her peers and her culture that the world outside her city was “racist”. And she is not alone. Her entire city saw some of the most violent and deadly protests against “racism” in recent history. During the course of those protests, organized crime leaders were able to seize control of an entire neighborhood, forcing people to flee from their own homes while all the while blaming “racism” as the problem. To this day, Erika is not sure how much of that “racism” was real, and how much of it was just people seeing “ghosts” every time the wind blows outside their window.

Both of these cases of psychological suggestion can be addressed with the same technique. First, the observer must realize that much of what they experience is merely what they expect to experience. Second, the observer must objectively observe the phenomenon they assume is what they expected it to be. There may be a more rational explanation for those creaks and groans in the floor; it may even be a safety issue that needs to be addressed—perhaps mice in the electrical wires or failing plumbing. Perhaps, when somebody acts “racist” towards you, they are that same kind of jerk to everybody else, too. And just like that glitch in the database software that let the “ghost data” in, there may be something else more urgent than “racism” that needs to be addressed.

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