Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an old friend. At one point during our conversation, he basically asked me if I believed in Karma (that good things happen to good people, etc.). My answer to that question was yes and no. No, in the sense that I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural moral causation, which is what Karma technically is. But on the other hand, I do believe that there are other naturalistic mechanisms that produce similar effects which would be indistinguishable from what people would call Karma. Specifically, I believe that there are various psychological, cognitive and social factors that ultimately produce these kinds of effects on one’s life. So I decided to expand on this topic a little bit in this post.
First of all, the level of optimism or pessimism that a person has will undoubtedly affect not only their overall worldview but also the course that their life takes over time in profound ways that are often taken for granted or overlooked. If a person has a positive attitude, they will tend to invite others (whether explicitly or not) into their social circle not only due to their personality being inviting and comforting, but also because that person is more likely to be productive in helping others. Furthermore, if they are also altruistic, other people will often take notice of this, and are more likely to solidify a relationship with them. Likewise, since altruism is often reciprocated, then a person that is altruistic is more likely to have help returned to them when they need it most. So in short, a person that is positive and altruistic is more likely to continue along a positive path in their life’s course simply because their attitude and less selfish behavior serve as catalysts to solidify more meaningful relationships with others, thus allowing them to increasingly gain more safety nets and mutual socioeconomic benefits as time progresses.
One can see how this principle would operate in the converse scenario, that is, with a person that is generally pessimistic and selfish. This person is clearly more likely to deter new meaningful relationships due to their uninviting personality (especially if they are anti-social), due to how they make others feel generally, and due to them only focusing on their own best interests. Others are likely to notice this behavior, and if that pessimistic and selfish person needs help at some point in time, they aren’t nearly as likely to receive any. This in turn will make it more likely for that person to fall into a downward spiral, where their lack of help from others is likely to cause that person to be increasingly resentful, bitter, negative, and even less likely to help others around them then they were before. So we can see how a person’s attitude and behavioral trends often have a catalyzing effect on their life’s course by effectively amplifying their behavior in a reciprocated fashion from those around them. That is, whatever socio-psychological environment is being nurtured by that person (whether good or bad) will most likely be reciprocated thus creating a feedback loop that can become amplified over time.
There appears to be a sort of avalanche effect that can occur, where even a tiny chaotic deviation from the present state can lead to very large differences later on. Most of us have heard of the so-called “Butterfly Effect” where tiny perturbations in a system can lead to huge changes that are increasingly amplified over time, and this socio-psychological feedback loop is perhaps one of the most important illustrations of such an effect. Even tiny actions or events that influence our perspective (or the perspective of those around us) can often lead to dramatic changes later on in our lives.
Another important point regarding the effect of optimism and pessimism within this socio-psychological feedback loop is the placebo/nocebo effect, where if one believes that either positive or negative outcomes are more likely, their physiology and cognitive states can change in accordance with those expectations. People that strongly believe that they will fail to reach a goal or that have some other negative expectation (such as getting sick) are more likely to self-manifest that expectation (i.e. the “nocebo” effect) since their expectations not only influence their perception for the worse, but also because they often channel their focus and attention on that negative belief (which can increase stress levels and thus impair cognitive faculties and overall health) and the belief can become reinforced in other ways since the brain’s cognitive biases often function to reinforce whatever beliefs we have in the first place, even if they are unjustified, incorrect, or ultimately bad for our well-being. Following along this line of reasoning, we can see how a person that strongly believes that they will in fact achieve a goal or some other positive state are more likely to do so. Thus, the placebo or nocebo effect can directly result from optimistic or pessimistic perspectives and are often reinforced by our own cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms.
It seems that even a small boost in encouragement, optimism, or altruism, can lead to a cascade effect of improved social relationships (thus providing more socioeconomic stability) and an improvement in overall well-being through various socio-psychological feedback loops. Furthermore, our attitude or perspective can also lead to various placebo effects that further reinforce these feedback loops. In any case, we should all recognize and appreciate how even small perturbations in our attitude as well as in our behavior toward others can have profound changes in our lives. Even small acts of kindness or morale boosts can go a long way to changing the lives of others, as well as our own. So to conclude, I would argue that if any kind of Karma seems to exists in this world, those Karmic effects are naturally brought about by the kinds of mechanisms I’ve described here.