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Let's take an imaginary world where, without its inhabitants realizing it, everything is physically influenced by what people thinks, by what they believe, by how they see the world. Of course the opinion of a single person has no effect, but if a lot of people think that something is true, in the place where they live that thing becomes in fact true. For simple things like legends becoming reality I don't think there are consistency problems. But what happens if discrimination against a small group of people becomes widespread?

Let's take for example an emperor of a large country that decides to use a small neighboring country as scapegoat and sends bards to spread lies about them through the entire empire, accusing them of any possible evil. The majority of the inhabitants of the empire will believe such lies and start to discriminate and hate the people of the neighboring country. But what will happen to the discriminated people if their number is very inferior to the inhabitants of the empire? Is there a way for them to be able to mantain their identity, their individuality? Or will they start to gradually become exactly like the prejudice about them, like the imaginary enemy that the emperor accuses them to be? And how this gradual change can affect them without them noticing?

A sudden mass brainwashing sounds a bit stupid, so I'd like to define in a realistic way how such a process could work from the psychological point of view of the victims.

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  • $\begingroup$ The time scale and "strength of conviction" are probably determining factors. In your legend example, many people believed it for a long time: so it exists. In the "brainwash" by the Emperor, people may believe that, but if it should be noticeable, they have to believe it for a long time. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jun 8 '15 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ Are you insinuating this is not how the world actually functions? It strikes me the best way to answer this question is to open a history book to pretty much any page you please and read about how it actually happened! (You might need a really good history book, that attempts to tell things as they happened. Those are hard to come by) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jun 8 '15 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ This would drastically change the scientific method. If what is popularly believed becomes true, the Earth may now still be flat and the sun may be orbiting us. - Do our beliefs then counter any "World Destruction" events that would caused by this actually happening? $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jun 8 '15 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble No problem here: we also believe the sun to rise in the morning and set at night and not get alarmingly bigger in the sky today, and so it is. The universe would be a caricature of itself under our naive beliefs, but it would keep on working (somehow). $\endgroup$ – Mario Carneiro Jun 9 '15 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ Not an answer, but the Coldfire-trilogy by C.S. Friedman explores such a world. Interestingly she explores the idea of religion and magic possible by this, but not the idea of discrimination. Still interesting to see how such a world works out: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coldfire_Trilogy $\endgroup$ – Mnementh Jun 9 '15 at 14:30
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I like the concept of it, but indeed, it could just spin completely off-trails.

Limits

I think time is your best ally. Indeed, changes could occur but in the time scale of years/decades/centuries. YMMV.

Let me illustrate it with some examples.

  • Some guy turn up with ideas about brand-new crazy-cool divinity. That guy's pretty good and get some followers, because of good philosophy, maybe a few tricks, sound rhetoric, etc. Then it gathers some momentum, and after a roughly a century, a few thousands people are following the religion, even after the guy's death. Then imperceptibly, the divinity IS created. And as more and more people believe in Her, she gets more and more power or capability to actually do something/think on her own and finally interact with the world.
  • Your evil Emperor comes up with his dislike for a minority. Runs his propaganda and so on. Then two possibilities. He finally trip them of power (as Cort Amon mentioned in the comments, look at some examples of how Jews were treated throughout the middle ages), and then got bored and stop his propaganda. And the hatred fades away after a decade. Then nothing happened to that minority. At least nothing remotely noticeable.
  • Let's say, on the contrary, that his hatred was a pure racism and not an opportunistic economic/political manoeuvre (it probably makes him a worst politician then), and keeps on blaming them for all the troubles in the world. The population really follow him, and even worse, some of that minority start to believe in it. Generation after generations, the hatred continues and that population becomes really as bad and mean as they were thought to be.

But this is a very crucial point: they are affected by the average thought of ALL who know them. You might say it like this it is their will against the Empire inhabitants will, and pondered by the neighbouring countries inhabitants: do they see them equally bad? Are they neutral? Are they positive?

In a way, the same goes with the Goddess: if some people are convinced that our prophet was just a crackpot, and that no-such Goddess exist, it goes against the effective apparition of the Goddess.

In a word, the effect occurs only if all people related to that thing think, in average, in the same direction.

Another constraint that can make it interesting is the "strength" of the belief. If people merely believe in something without much interest, the effect will differ from if people are fully devoted and numerous. You could have it affect the time for the effect to appear, or how much of the effect actually appears.

As an illustration, if a few tens of people believe in some god in a small region, but don't obsess about it, then maybe the "god"'s power that will appear with time will be just a bit of luck, better weather for the farming, less sicknesses, etc. But if there are hundreds of thousands, with some that dedicate their full life to the god, then it could materialise into a physical being (given enough time).

Effects on Society

Just a few thoughts on how would that impact your societies, I can see a few points that need consideration.

  • Gods will physically exists, making clergies very powerful,
  • Magic will probably exist as well (at least in some form),
  • People within Nations will tend to be good-natured: typically when you want to bind with your neighbours to form a society, you emphasize how similar you are, how good you are, how strong you are together, etc. Those things will BECOME true. If people are convinced that their politicians are good, that will be true, given enough time.
  • Due to the averaging and the slow changes, it is unnoticeable by the people and no-one effectively control the climate.

That penultimate point probably need much more thinking, but it depends on plenty of other parameters (tech./evolution level, world, population, etc.) that would make it beyond the scope of that answer.


TL;DR Changes occur only when in average all the concerned population think one way, for enough time.

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  • $\begingroup$ Time is a very interesting and realistic limitation, I think that's the right way to go to define the laws behind the power of beliefs. About physical gods instead, I think the key is that the beliefs only become reality in the exact place where the people who believe in them live. So to "create" a real god there is the need to have a unique religion in the whole world, but it's quite difficult. So maybe in a believing country we can have prayers and blessings that work and real prophets with some sort of power, but no physical gods, because the rest of the world believes in different stuff. $\endgroup$ – Soel Jun 8 '15 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ Your world, your rules, of course. But I think that one has to consider three positions: believer in the god, neutral and disbelievers. Just like nowadays a lot of people claiming to be atheist are in reality agnostic: they simply don't know or don't care. If locally people are fervently revering a deity, and that religion is ignored by the rest of the world, it would still work. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jun 9 '15 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Soel, I edited in another "limitation", which is the strength of the belief. It may be the part that was missing, seeing your comment above. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jun 9 '15 at 7:19
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I would suggest that in this world you should differentiate free will. Anything with free will generates belief, but that belief only affects things without free will.

In other words beliefs about the weather, physical laws, even magic...they would all work. However if you believe that certain people are smarter/stronger/weaker/dumber then that has no effect at all.

Defining the threshold for free will could be interesting, an obvious dividing point is intelligence but you could consider including animals or not including them. Magical beasts again you could decide whether they are included or not, and so on.

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  • $\begingroup$ One possible issue with this answer that would need to be addressed: What if the collective beliefs create a person or thing that has free will? As the original question said, a legend, say of a man, could become real, which means that this man is created by the beliefs, but if he has free will and cannot be effected by beliefs, where does he stand? Is it that at the point where the collective beliefs give him free will, he becomes a person and immune to further changes? Or can no such humunculus develop free will? Could be really interesting stuff here... $\endgroup$ – Cain Jun 8 '15 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Cain Yes, a lot of very interesting questions as you say. There are a lot of different ways it could be taken so really it should look at what is needed from the world that is being built. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jun 8 '15 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ Free will can be an excellent aspect to take into consideration, but the first issue that comes to mind to me is: what about newborns? I mean, a baby is pratically a blank slate and its ideas and personality in the first years are for a consistent part the result of the external influences it receives. So, if free will makes immune to the power of beliefs okay, no problem. But I prefer to consider it more like a strong resistance than a total protection, an inconscious reaction to mantain one own individuality. But newborns have a weak individuality, so that makes them very vulnerable. $\endgroup$ – Soel Jun 8 '15 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Soel Yes, that too would be possible. Really you can shape this explanation to give you whatever end results you need for the world you are building. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jun 8 '15 at 22:40
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Huh, in this world kings are genuinely going to look like people chosen by god or will look like gods themselves.

For example Kim Jong-il would actually be able to control the weather.

If millions of people believe that Bill Gates is super-smart he'd get even smarter.

There's going to be one hell of a feedback loop with personality cults. It will seem natural that fame and power begets even more greatness. Imagine if upon becoming pope a person actually gained the ability to do miracles? One day a normal bishop, the next magical powers.

"Immortal" leaders might actually become immortal.

Exceptionalism is also going to become self confirming. When a hundred million people genuinely believe they're the best at everything they're going to end up constantly faced with confirmation of their beliefs which will in turn strengthen their beliefs.

Strength of conviction might make a difference. If I believe I'm a good person but I believe it strongly and it's really important to me do I cancel out 100 people who believe me evil or do I start feeling the urge to kick puppies?

How about distance? if the effect weakens with distance the beliefs of a whole neighbourhood might overwhelm the single migrant living there and turn him into a walking stereotype while a community 100 miles away might be able to hold off the onslaught with only a little belief in themselves.

Science is going to look different too. Magic, gods and demons will verifiably exist and may even be known to change over time and there's likely to be an area of study related to them but rationalism in all it's forms is likely to have a lesser following in such a world.

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    $\begingroup$ This does not seem to answer the actual question. $\endgroup$ – Erik Jun 8 '15 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ yes it does. re-read the last pargraph. including question marks can indicate options. I gave options depending on how the OP want's the effect to work. Strength of conviction and distance vs numbers. It's not like there's a real world belief-field we can reference. The answer depends entirely on how the OP wants it to work. $\endgroup$ – Murphy Jun 8 '15 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ Your migrant example is excellent. So basically it could work on a nation-wide scale only if the scapegoat nation is small and surrounded by the empire (for example if the whole Europe started hating Switzerland). But what if the scapegoat nation is on the border between two empires? The different beliefs may usually neutralize themselves reciprocally, but what if the second empire has an isolationistic policy? The scapegoat nation will have daily relation only with the empire that hates them, so maybe those beliefs should have a bigger influence at equal distance. $\endgroup$ – Soel Jun 8 '15 at 21:55
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I would assume the following, given your scenario:

  • free will exists as much as in reality, by default
  • but the urges of people can be controlled by this magic. As people are influenced a lot by their urges this could easily cause such a minority to have a higher rate of thieves, or to have more people with anger problems, etc.
  • if people believe that something doesn't have free will, then it will stop having free will. But given for example prejudices against Jews in Drittes Reich: I don't think Jews would have lost their free will. They were portrayed as stupid sometimes, but at the same time as evil and plotting. Those two things would have more or less cancelled each other out (but for the evil part), leaving their intelligence and free will untouched. They would have become more ruthless and probably more powerful because people were led to believe they were dangerous. Quite possibly this would have helped them to defend themselves (maybe even overthrowing the Nazis, changing the public opinion to a more sensible one [by force] and then reverting back to their own selves after public perception of Jews becomes less negative).
  • public opinion would become the most important power factor in politics and the like, even in monarchies: If the people thinks the monarch is ill, he'll become ill, so his opponents might spread rumors. If the people think the monarch is evil then he will become so. If the monarch uses propaganda to make the people believe he is good, then he'll become good.
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I think it would depend partly on if the person/people who are the focus of the reality altering forces have to accept them for them to truly change them. The funny thing this is fairly close to the reality we live in today. Both "you can be what you believe you can become", and "you can only be what other people allow you to become". Both statements have a lot of truth in them.

So while in one country, Elves are looked on as fancy Orcs, another area they might be thought of as near gods. If one moves to/through the country where they are despised they will be observed to be such by the locals, and if they spend enough time there might begin to believe it. Traveling through the country where they are held in high esteem likewise, they would be observed as wonderful people and praised. In both cases they are themselves until they start to believe along with the others.

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Limit the Physical Influence by Distance

You could make the physical influence decay with distance.

  • If a town believes that their hotel is haunted, then it becomes haunted.
  • If the town believes a town on the other side of the world is haunted, it has no effect.
  • If the town believes the town next door is haunted, then the town next door is only a little bit haunted.

This would have the effect of making regions slowly more homogenous over time. If you're a minority in a town that hates you, your people will slowly be erased because of your disadvantages; but the same minority could prosper on the other side of the world where different groups suffer. The world would become polarized. You could even have your North Pole and South Pole correspond to political regions. Symbolism!

You could also...

Use a Self-Defeating Prejudice

Suppose the majority of a town are X, and X generally believe that "Those dirty, rotten Y screw like rabbits." Over time, the Y would become the majority, and discriminate against the X. The Y would no longer be bound by the stereotypes about them, and they could stop reproducing so much and slowly become the minority again. At the same time, the Y will be undoing other negative stereotypes about themselves just by believing that they are inherently good people.

As long as the belief that high reproductivity is objectionable (based on a deep concern about over-population) outweighs any belief that X or Y are inherently inferior, the majority will reject the breeding stereotype about themselves, and the X and Y populations (and personality traits) will oscillate and co-exist.

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