At one point I had come home from an extended stay in hospital, and because ECT had wiped out a chunk of memory, I discovered things in my house that I had no idea how they had gotten there. One of those things I found was a book on the law of attraction.
At first glance, the idea of the law of attraction is very appealing; you get back from the universe whatever you put out into it, because like energy attracts like energy. According to the film The Secret, it’s not only thinking about what you want to get back; you need to really pour some emotion into it in order to get results. But when you poke at it a bit, the whole idea starts to crumble.
I watched The Secret for the first time recently and a number of things struck me as wildly unreasonable. A prime example is the film’s claim that the universe is like catalogue shopping (my analogy, not theirs), and as long as you think and feel a desire for something, you just need to sit back and wait because the universe will turn your thoughts into things and just drop them in your lap.
Apparently “the law of attraction will give you what you want every time”. Are you getting bills in the mail? Well, that’s not because you owe money, obviously; it’s because you’re expecting to get more bills. Change your thinking to expect a cheque, and your credit card company will just forget about those overdue payments and some random person will start sending you money on behalf of the universe! No need to worry about how it will happen; the universe is going to figure that out for you.
Time for some pseudoscience
The Secret contains some fishy ideas about how the brain works. Some examples: “Every thought has a frequency”; “Thoughts are sending out the magnetic signal that’s drawing the parallel back to you”; “It has been proven now scientifically that an affirmative thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought”.
A 2007 issue of Scientific American questioned the accuracy of how the law of attraction represents brainwave electrical activity, and multiple authors have questioned other aspects of its purported scientific basis. A 2010 New York Times book review cited by Wikipedia calls The Secret pseudoscience and an “illusion of knowledge”. And do thoughts vibrate? Do, they do not.
It’s not the same as the power of positive thinking
I’m not questioning the power of positive thinking to shape our experience. While the law of attraction may have some similarities to positive psychology concepts, there are some fundamental differences. Let’s consider Elie Wiesel, a remarkable, Nobel prize-winning Jewish author who survived detention in Nazi concentration camps. He is a powerful example of maintaining a positive attitude in order to survive unimaginable horrors. Did his attitude make the horrors go away and attract only positive things? Of course not. But it changed the framework of meaning through which he interpreted his experience.
However, this does not seem to be what the law of attraction is getting at. Instead, it seems to suggest that people ended up in concentration camps because somehow that’s what they were asking the universe for, and they stayed there and suffered because they just weren’t properly asking the universe to be free.
Is illness your fault?
One area where the law of attraction really falls apart for me is when it comes to serious illness, be it mental or physical. “Everything that’s coming into your life, you’re attracting into your life,” says “philosopher” Bob Proctor in The Secret (I could find no evidence of him having any background in philosophy).
So we’ve somehow put crazy energy out there into the world in order to attract mental illness our way? If we are gripped by psychosis, is that because of something we’ve put out there into the ether? And when we try to end our lives, is that because we’re not shooting out enough good vibes?
Shouldn’t your actions matter?
I get that it’s good to try to be positive. There’s a whole field of positive psychology that leans in that direction without the pseudoscientific talk of thoughts radiating frequencies and positive and negative energies attracting each other. But how far can thinking/emoting get you without action? I can think wealthy thoughts all I want, but unless that spurs me to work on money management and pursue opportunities for growing wealth, it seems rather implausible that the universe would a) care, and b) throw money down from heaven and say “this is for you!”
If the positive thought acts as a motivator for action, I can see how that would be very powerful, but The Secret is very clear that action is not required; the universe will do the acting. Somehow, though, just hanging out eating, peeing, and sleeping dollars seems unlikely to get me very far in the wealth department.
Its many fans do not change the fact that the law of attraction is based on nothing but hot air. That being said, there are still some positive things to take away from it if one ignores its faulty underlying premise. Make sure your attitude is helping you, not getting in your way. The way you treat other people is likely to end up being reflected back to you in some way, so follow the golden rule and do unto others, etc.
Do you think the law of attraction is real?
There’s more on pseudoscience and public health on The Science Corner.The Science Corner: Debunking Pseudoscience