Ronald Crouch Ph.D.
Psychologist and Author
For this week’s pseudoscience experiment we are going to test to see if the Law of Attraction actually works. But first, I’m going to take a deep dive into the weird world magical thinking that led up to today’s obsession with manifesting. If you want to skip the details and jump right to the pseudoscience experiment, just scroll to the bottom.
What is the thing you most want? A beach house? A private island? A beach house on a private island? Picture yourself having that thing. As though it is happening right now. Feel how nice it is. Got it? Good. Guess what? You just inched a little closer to making it a reality. That’s right. Your new car just rolled a tiny bit closer to you. That luxury yacht just drifted imperceptibly in your direction. Your soul-mate just took that new job in your town. How? The law of attraction. It is a universal law. A sacred law. An ancient secret. One that has been known and practiced by luminaries and sages throughout history. Buddha. Jesus. Lady Gaga. You get the idea. They all fantasized about what they wanted so intensely, so clearly, and with such sincerity that the universe heard them and delivered. That is how the universe works. Sounds good doesn’t it?
The law of attraction was popularized in the 2006 book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. In it she claims that the universe listens to our thoughts. Not only that, the universe then arranges for the things we think about to happen. The idea is so bizarre that you’d think the person proposing it would be offered medication instead of a book contract. But you’d be wrong. The book has grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. It has been translated into over 50 languages. There are dozens of websites and spinoff books that promise to help you fine tune your law of attraction abilities. There are personal coaches who will help you learn the secret. Therapists and counselors teach the secret as a way to improve your life. A movie was even made about it.The movie cost less than $4,000 to make, and may be one of the cheesiest movies ever made. In it you literally see people sending out waves of something from their heads to the universe, which then reimburses them in the form of new stuff. And yet the movie grossed over $65 million. How did all this happen? Is it the secret itself? Did Byrne harness the law of attraction to sell the book. Not exactly. She harnessed the law of Oprah.
In February of 2007 Oprah brought Byrne on her show and opened with a very strong sell of the secret, claiming that this was the way to get what you truly want. “Make more money, lose weight, fall in love, land your dream job – isn’t that amazing!?” Yes Oprah. It is amazing. Byrne claimed on the show that she discovered the secret in the book The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles. Hidden in the pages of that book she saw the flickering flames of an idea. One that just might get her rich. She called it “the secret.” Once she had the idea she read “hundreds of books, listened to hundreds of hours of audio, and within two and half weeks I had traced the secret back through history,” which she claims goes back to ancient India. Oprah, for her part, asks pointed questions and does her due diligence as an interviewer, asking for solid evidence to back Byrne’s bold claims. No – I’m kidding. She gushes over the secret during the show, explaining that she had always practiced it herself, she just didn’t know what it was. Byrne tells Oprah that the secret is simple. It is called “the law of attraction.” It is the law that “like attracts like, and we attract into our lives the things that we want, and that is based on what we’re thinking and feeling.” At one point Byrne suggests that it is a kind of magnetism, which is odd because magnetism attracts opposites, but never mind. She goes on to boldly state that it is “the most powerful law in the universe” (take that strong nuclear force). Oprah, being the world-class communicator she is, responds with a perfect summary, “So what you’re saying is that we are, all human beings here on Earth, are creating our own realities. We create our own circumstances.” Byrne nods sagely. Oprah, as usual, nailed it.
What followed is a prime example of what has become known as “the Oprah Bump.” However this time it might have been more accurately called the Oprah explosion. The Secret, both in book and movie form, skyrocketed in sales. The week before the appearance on Oprah The Secret sold 18,000 copies. The week the show aired it sold over 100,000 copies, and the week that a follow up show was done it sold close to 200,000 copies (Watkin, 2007). Soon it became a breakout best seller, having sold over a million copies in the United States alone. That year a writer in the Washington Post noted that at a California bookstore they ran out of copies of The Secret three times in less than two weeks. When customers were asked why they were buying it they explained that they had seen it on Oprah. The law of attraction is not an ancient secret. It doesn’t go back to Vedic India. But Byrnes is correct that it isn’t new either. It is the latest iteration of the New Thought movement. This is a style of positive thinking which originated in the United States in the late 1800s, during that peculiar time when seances and spiritualism were all the rage. At first New Thought was linked to physical health and was known as “the mind cure” (see The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James for more on the New Thought movement). The basic premise was that if you think in positive ways then you will be as healthy as a horse, but if you are a nervous nelly the universe will give you something to worry about. Often in the form of consumption. Soon the idea became more expansive, encompassing far more than physical health. Your love life, family life, and especially your financial life was subject to your positive or negative thinking. And along with the broader idea came a more scientific-sounding name: the “law of attraction.” It was a term that first appeared in print in the 1877 book Isis Unveiled by Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky is the founder of the theosophical movement and humbly describes her book as “the master key to ancient and modern science.”
The law of attraction was floated in American culture just as spiritualism was going mainstream, and it was exuberantly taken up as a method for attaining the American dream. The idea began to appear in various forms in books promising to make you into the next self-made millionaire. Books like Think and Grow Rich and The Power of Positive Thinking are exemplars of this movement. Delusional over-the-top optimism became the cliché model of the American success story. The book where Byrnes discovered the secret, The Science of Getting Rich, published in 1910, is a perfect example of this historic trend. The Secret repackaged the law of attraction for a modern audience and, thanks to Oprah, lifted it to new financial heights that would have had Blavatsky green with envy. But if you look closely at The Secret, you will find that Byrne also took it to dark new extremes.
In the book Byrne states over and over again, in the clearest possible language, that everything is explained by the law of attraction. If something bad happens to you it is because you have been thinking bad things. Full stop. “The only reason why people do not have what they want is because they are thinking more about what they don’t want than what they do want” (emphasis is mine). In another place in the book she asserts that “Imperfect thoughts are the cause of humanity’s ills” (no emphasis needed). The certainty here is breathtaking. This, Byrne is positing, is the root of all evil. The cause of it all. The reason for all of our troubles. If we think about the things that cause us problems, then we cause ourselves those problems. It is our fault. Sorry refugees. You just weren’t thinking positive thoughts. Too bad about your childhood cancer kids, next time stay optimistic. All those families living on the streets during the great depression? They were just thinking depressed thoughts. If someone is poor it is because they are “blocking money from coming with their thoughts.” If someone is sick it is because they are “inviting illness” with their stinking thinking.
This is a textbook example of the Just World Hypothesis (JWH), but taken to an Orwellian level of thought-crime. Although the law of attraction has a dark undercurrent of JWH, there must be something about it that is deeply, well, attractive. Why do so many people fall for it? I suspect that part of the answer is found in our early development. It is no secret that adults really are big kids. The things that made us children never really go away fully, they just recede into the background. One of those is the psychological phenomenon of “magical thinking.” This is the default style of thinking found in children between the ages of two to seven. Magical thinking is the belief that your thoughts have an effect on the outside world. Of course, kids do not choose to think this way. No one sold them a book on it. It is natural. I encounter it all the time in child therapy. I once worked with a four year old girl who thought that if she drew enough pictures of a dog one would show up at her house. A five year old thought that his constant wishing for a baby brother was why his mom became pregnant (spoiler alert: it was actually a sister). Anthropologists have documented that this style of thinking doesn’t just go away with childhood but finds its way into how adults make sense of the world. We talk to inanimate objects all the time to persuade them to play nice. In our heads we often feel as though we are in a private dialogue with the world. This is normal and natural. And most of us realize that our private thoughts do not actually influence the world and no one is really listening. No matter how much we sweet talk that photocopier it just won’t work. But many of us don’t realize how this innate history of magical thinking makes us vulnerable to strange ideas. The law of attraction may simply be a modern manifestation of this quirky developmental holdover.
Because young children are magical thinkers they are also extremely susceptible to the kinds of messages found in The Secret. What is especially concerning is that the law of attraction has been marketed directly to kids. In The Law of Attraction for Kids Jennifer Quaggin introduces kids to it in a way that directly invokes magical thinking:
Do you believe in magic? Well, if you do, then you’re going to want to learn about something called the Law of Attraction. If you use the Law of Attraction, you can be anything you want to be, you can have anything you want to have. All of your most wonderful dreams will come true!
The official website for The Secret shows that it is now much more than a book, it has become something of a publishing powerhouse, selling books, videos, soundtracks, apps, and workbooks. And a number of these titles are aimed directly at kids. For young children you can purchase The Power of Henry’s Imagination, a heartwarming story about a little boy who loses his stuffed bunny and is advised by his wise grandfather to use the secret to get it back. For teens there is The Secret to Teen Power. This promises to help your teen clear up their pimples, get good grades, and find their way to fame and fortune by teaching them the law of attraction. While the darker aspects of the JWH are missing from the The Power of Henry’s Imagination the teen version pulls no punches:
Victims of tragedy didn’t ask for their fate (and they totally didn’t deserve it). They probably didn’t even know they were capable of attracting stuff. But still, there’s an attraction. And that’s because the law of attraction operates whether you know about it or not. People who don’t know THE SECRET are attracting by default.
Imagine that you are a suicidal teenager reading this. One that is bullied. Or abused. Or has serious illness. Or maybe you are one of those kids who lost a parent to one of the myriad forces outside of your control that tears parents from their families. I see teens all the time blame themselves for things that are not their fault. Teaching this to kids isn’t just factually wrong, it verges on cruel. If a kid believes this it will likely inspire them to think positive thoughts. That’s great in the short term. But when life goes sideways on them, and it will, such a belief could cause them psychological harm. Launching into emerging adulthood with a belief in the Law of Attraction sets you up for failure when things go wrong. What a horrible way to start off a life. Because kids are naturally magical thinkers and because there are so many people out there trying to sell them on the idea of the law of attraction it is worth taking the time to teach your kid about it and why it can be dangerous. Here is a fun activity you can try to teach your little skeptic about the Law of Attraction:
The Pseudoscience Experiment
For this activity you’re going to set up a situation where you will use a coin flip to test whether wishing for heads makes it occur more often. The claim of the law of attraction is that if you think about something the universe listens and makes that thing more likely. If this is true then you should be able to test it in situations where the outcome is easy to predict. There should be a significant difference between the outcome while using the law of attraction and the predicted outcome. To do this you will need a paper, pencil, and a coin. Because the probability of the coin landing on either side is always 50% the predicted outcome is 50% heads and 50% tails. I recommend flipping the coin an even number of times and recording the results on paper. The more times you flip the more accurate the overall outcome will be. Ten times is likely to be too little, twenty times is good, thirty will work very well. While flipping the coin instruct your kid to visualize and think about the coin landing on heads. You may want to watch a video explaining the law of attraction, or read some of the online claims about it together. Discuss how it could work. Is there a universe out there keeping track of what we think? How could thoughts in our heads change the outcome of a coin flip? Reason that if the law of attraction works, then after 10 flips heads should be more than 5, at twenty heads should be a lot more than 10 and at 30 heads should be WAY more than 15. Decided ahead of time what a “significant” score is for the law of attraction. Is it 20 heads out of 30? Or 25? Decide together and discuss it before starting. This will give your little critical thinker experience with a crucial skill: testing claims.
Let the fun begin!