Someone on a forum did me the distinct disfavour of posting the first 20 minutes of the trainwreck film, The Secret, where the “secret” refers to the “Law of Attraction”. Briefly, the idea is that thinking about things will cause them to come about—think about the bad things in life and bad things will happen to you; think about good things and they will happen instead. I’m not going to waste time and space talking about why this is preposterous. What motivates me to write this is rather my anger at this, and what I consider to be the harmful consequences.
Lots of people actually seem to believe in this crap. To some extent, that isn’t too surprising. The facile reasons are, first, that it certainly fits in with a lot of New Age magic; second, that the testimonials look good (the happy supporters they choose to speak out really are happy—of course they are, living in $4.5 million mansions…); and third, it is endorsed by highly visible and respected idiots, like Oprah.
More importantly, however, it ties in very neatly with things that are actually true.¹ Of course positive thinking tends to improve your life in many ways—it’s a well established psychological fact that acting happy tends to make you happier; happiness and confidence improve your interpersonal skills and relations; avoiding focusing on negative things frees you from brooding over misfortunes. None of this validates the “secret”. The fact that your mental attitude is connected to your mental state is painfully obvious, and a positive demeanour improving interpersonal relations (and through that avenue, your life) is only evidence that people respond better to happy, confident people than to sad or aggressive ones, and does not require the existence of some mysterious universal energy found by viciously abusing quantum physics.
All right, then, some hypothetical person might ask,
what is the harm? It may be silly, but if it motivates people to engage in positive thinking, which you freely acknowledge is a good thing, then why should we discourage this stuff?
Apart from the fact that I am as dedicated as I am able to pursue truth, and consider it morally valuable in its own right, I do think that this silliness has a very sinister side.
The first and most obvious problem is that when people put their trust in anything that doesn’t actually work, there is a risk that they will eschew real, working solutions because they think they already have one. For instance, the 20-minute clip from The Secret has someone claiming:
I’ve seen cancer dissolved.
Let me reiterate that. The Secret strongly implies that positive thinking can cure cancer.
That is when it ceases to be funny. People who swallow this whole are lead to believe that positive thinking suffices to cure cancer. This misinformation can kill. Nothing cures cancer like surgical steel (preferably with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy as adjuvant therapies to prevent recurrence). Failing to seek proper help can kill you, painfully and horribly.
And, of course, we can extrapolate this to any other medical condition, or for that matter, any other problem.
The second repugnant consequence of this belief in the “Law of Attraction” is that while the film-makers focus strongly on the
empowering effect, when positive thinking is believed to change your life, the explicit corollary is that negative thoughts lead to bad things happening. They make this very clear: These people assert not only that negative things will make bad things happen, but that whenever bad things keep happening to you, it is because you are thinking negative thoughts. It’s under your control, they say, and you have the power to change it—but if events are bad, you caused them to happen.
We know, of course, that this is bunk. However, those who believe it are also made to believe that all their misfortunes are their fault. If your house burned down, if you developed cancer, if you were raped—according to the makers of The Secret, this is your fault: You made it happen. This is not only nonsensical, it is also an extremely cruel thing to allege.
¹ There is a parallel here to the view of some bloggers, such as “Orac”, of “complementary and alternative medicine”, which are perceived to usurp some actually valid ideas, like nutrition and exercise:
CAM practitioners prescribe good nutrition, exercise, and homeopathic remedies; good nutrition and exercise are clearly good for your health; therefore homeopathy must be good—stated so baldly, the intellectual bankrupcy of the notion is obvious.