Life can be tough and people want easy solutions. That helps explain why there are so many self-help and positive thinking books and DVDs on the market. One of the latest works in this genre was created by Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne and is about “the secret.”
This secret is what she calls “the law of attraction.” This law states that reality can be altered and manipulated directly by people’s thoughts and feelings. To use one of Byrne’s own causal examples, “food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight.” She even claims that she can eat whatever she wants and maintain her weight.
According to empowerment advocate Lisa Nichols, this works in the following way: “when you think of the things you want, and you focus on them with all your intention, then the law of attraction will give you exactly what you want, every time.” Not surprisingly, positive thoughts and feelings are rewarded. This process is illustrated in the film: a woman obsessing over a bauble in a jewelry store windows soon finds the necklace around her neck-apparently with no effort on her part. In another scene, a boy visualizes himself with a new bike and it soon appears. This law apparently even helps with parking-in the film a financial consultant able to find empty parking spaces by visualizing what he wants. While getting material goods and parking spaces is appealing, using this law can apparently also cure disease. For example, a woman in the film claims that she cured her breast cancer by positive thinking.
Of course, like a magnet, the law of attraction has a negative side along with its positive side. Those who have negative thoughts and feelings suffer ill consequences. For example, someone who frets over having her bike stolen will soon find it missing.
As one might suspect from these claims, the work puts forth a causal account that is both implausible and contrary to empirical evidence.
First, the claim that the law of attraction enables people to get what they want by their thoughts and feelings is contrary to the empirical evidence. For example, consider the Playstation 3. On the day of the initial release, many people wanted a PS 3 very badly-badly enough to wait for hours and hours in line for a chance to get one. However, most of these people went home empty handed. If the law of attraction worked, one would expect that there would be many more PS3 owners. As another example, consider grades. As a professor, I have lost count of the number of students who have told me how badly they want an “A” and how focused they are on the grade. However, they are graded on the quality of their work and not once has an “A” miraculously appeared in the grade book simply because a student wanted it badly enough. As a final example, consider illness. I, like many people, have had close friends who have had cancer and who maintained a positive attitude throughout the ordeal and wanted, very badly, to be healthy and to live. Unfortunately, this attitude is clearly not enough since death all too often puts an end to hope. Given that the law of attraction is contrary to experience, it seems reasonable to reject it as yet another form of wishful thinking.
Second, consider the specific examples used by Byrne. These examples run contrary to well-established and extensively tested scientific findings. Take, for example her claim about food and weight. The physiological process of fat production in humans is well understood and well tested. It works in purely physical terms and there is simply no evidence that how people think about their food can affect the physiological process of fat production. After all, people in persistent vegetative states gain weight from food even though they presumably have no thoughts about food whatsoever. As another example, consider the claim made about cancer. While a person’s attitude does have an impact on his or her health, there is no evidence that this attitude can actually cure cancer. While cancer is not as well understood as fat production, there is adequate understanding to effectively support the claim that cancer is physiological phenomenon that is not curable simply by thoughts and feelings. Finally, consider the parking space example. If visualizing a space results in an empty space, this would seem to entail that people have great mental powers. To be specific, this would entail that people have the power to cause other people to avoid or leave a parking space simply by thinking. While extensive testing has been done on psychic phenomenon, there is no adequate evidence that people have such powers.
In addition to presenting a false theory of causation, the book and DVD are morally harmful. There are three serious harms that arise from these works.
First, the works put forth a false account of how the world actually functions. As was argued above, the causal claim put forth in the law of attraction runs contrary to both empirical evidence and well-tested scientific theories. Putting forth a wildly implausible account of how the world is supposed to work is morally irresponsible because people can be harmed, perhaps even seriously, if they accept such an account. One obvious example is the case of weight control. If someone who has a serious weight problem believes that he can control his weight by using the law of attraction instead of using proper diet and exercise, then there is a very good chance that his health will be impaired. As another example, if someone believes that she can cure her breast cancer by using the law of attraction and fails to seek proper medical attention, then the results are likely to be dire.
Second, the law of attraction seems to entail that each person is responsible for whatever happens to her-good or bad. While taking responsibility is generally good, claiming that people are responsible for more than they really are accountable for can have a negative psychological impact. To use an example from the film, if someone steals your bike, then your negative thinking and feelings are to blame. To use another example, if you are overweight, it cannot be a medical condition such as diabetes-it must be your negative thoughts. If someone truly believes in the law of attraction, then when bad things happen to them, they could well be doubly harmed: once by the bad event and then again by feelings of self-blame and guilt for their failure to think positively.
Naturally, a person might wonder about truly awful things-such as the genocide in Rwanda. Given the law of attraction, it would seem that the victims of the genocide were responsible for their fate because of negative thoughts and feelings. Obviously, this would be a rather reprehensible thing to claim.
Byrne was asked about Rwanda in a telephone interview conducted by Newsweek (March 5, 2007). Her reply was “If we are in fear, if we’re feeling in our lives that we’re victims and feeling powerless, then we are on a frequency of attracting those things to us…totally unconsciously, totally innocently, totally all those words that are so important.”
This quote creates a bit of a problem. Like all positive thinking people, Byrne puts forth her works as advice on what people should do in regards to their thoughts and feelings. This, naturally enough, presumes that people can control their thoughts and feelings. If people can do this, then they would seem to be responsible for their own negative thoughts and feelings. If negative thoughts and feelings of the genocide victims caused their suffering, then they are not innocent. In effect, they committed suicide by negative thoughts and feelings.
If negative thoughts and feelings are unconscious and innocent, then presumably it follows they are not under our control. If the law of attraction is correct, the victims in Rwanda caused their own deaths in the same way a wounded and bleeding person caused a shark to attack: they simply attracted harm through no fault of their own.
However, if negative thoughts and feelings are not under our control, then it would seem that positive thoughts would also not be under our control. After all, if they were then the genocide victims could have just thought enough positive thoughts to offset the negative thoughts and spared themselves. But, if our thoughts and feelings are not under our control, then the book and movie are pointless.
Third, the law of attraction seems to entail that people are not responsible for what they actually do. Consider, for example, the example of the person who can supposedly get a parking space by visualizing this. This entails that his thoughts control other people by somehow causing them to either not park in the spot he desires or to leave it when he is approaching. As another example, consider the cases of the necklace and the bike. Manufactured goods do not appear out of nothing, so presumably the desires of the woman and the child caused other people to bring them what they wanted. As a final example, consider the genocide in Rwanda. By Byrne’s account the negative thoughts of the victims brought their deaths and suffering to them. Under the law of attraction it would seem that people are puppets to the thoughts and feelings of other people. After all, since people are part of reality, if thoughts and feelings control reality, then they control people. Thus, when people take an action it would seem that they are not acting freely. If Sally gives Tom a Playstation 3, it would seem to be because Tom had positive thoughts and feelings about the PS3. If Sally stabs Tom in the face, then it would seem to be because Tom had negative thoughts and feelings that attracted a knife to his left eye. In any case, Sally is not responsible for her actions-Tom’s feelings and thoughts are. If Tom does not control his thoughts and feelings, then he is not responsible either. In this case, no one is responsible for anything at all.
Given the above discussion, it is now no secret that The Secret is fraught with metaphysical and moral problems.