The Law of Attraction and Gaslighting
It’s no secret that I despise The Secret (2006); a book and DVD by Rhonda Byrne and a cadre of self-proclaimed gurus that promotes the Law of Attraction (LOA). In essence, the LOA posits that our thoughts are vibrations and create our reality: like attracts like, so for example, if we think about abundance then we will magically attract abundance and, conversely, if we think about scarcity then, abracadabra, we will attract scarcity. All we have to do in order to manifest anything we want in our lives is to ask, believe, and receive — whilst maintaining positive thoughts — and ‘the Universe’ will pander to our every whim. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of all things bonkers, The Secret has sold zillions of copies to impressionable minds throughout the world, making Byrne and her self-help posse multi-millionaires. Not bad, considering that The Secret is founded on complete fantasy.
Indeed, what astounds me the most is how many people actually fall for it. Other than sheer psychological need, gullibility (or both), the only rational explanation for the LOA attracting such a following is that it is a form of gaslighting, coupled with the fact that many people dare not challenge its assumptions. Why? Because, psychologically, it’s more beneficial for them to believe in the LOA rather than discount it, regardless of whether there is any truth to it. For believers in the magic genie in the sky (the ‘Universe’), truth, logic, and reason don’t seem to matter, and this latter point can be regarded as a secularisation of the philosophical conundrum known as ‘Pascal’s Wager’.
Blaise Pascal was a Seventeenth Century philosopher, theologian, mathematician, and physicist. He was, no doubt, a clever guy; but we should remember that in the Seventeenth Century, atheism was not tolerated under Christian hegemony, and so according to Pascal, humans wagered with their lives that God either exists or does not exist. It’s a simple either/or, dichotomous choice, and he believed that a rational person should hedge their bets and live as though God exists, simply because they have less to lose: if God does not actually exist, such a person will suffer only a finite loss (some worldly pleasures, luxuries, etc.) whereas if God does exist, they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell). So, in the context of the LOA, a person’s existence seems more bearable by wagering that it is real, even if the very thing they purport to believe in has no basis in scientific fact, or even in reality.
But here’s the rub: people are told by proponents of the LOA that it is real and has its basis in quantum physics, even though it isn’t real and has no scientific basis whatsoever: for one thing, Byrne is not a scientist (she is a producer of entertainment, which says it all); and Hicks has made a fortune from channelling messages from interdimensional beings thanks to her husband’s background in shrewd marketing. Neither of these women have any recourse to scientific knowledge or actual facts, and therefore have no claim to truth. The consensus amongst real, actual, credible scientists (and generally sane people) is that the LOA is an example of pseudo or fake science. In other words, it is utter tosh.
In claiming that a version of reality exists without any reliable proof whatsoever, and duping others into believing that it does exist, is gaslighting par excellence. But what do we mean by gaslighting? Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.
For the purposes of my argument, it’s the part of the definition around making someone question their reality — or creating a false reality for someone to believe in — that at once interests and disturbs me the most. To illustrate, allow me to ask you a question: do you believe in Santa Claus?
No, of course you don’t. No rationally minded adult would. And yet for a lot of us, we were brought up to believe in Santa Claus: we believed it because we didn’t know any better, and because it made life more magical. We didn’t question it, because such a belief is, superficially, perfectly innocent. As a kid, life is better with Santa Claus in it, right? And likewise, adult life is seemingly more attractive (superficially at least) if we harbour a belief in the LOA.
But in fact, convincing children that such a person as Santa Claus is real is convincing them of a version of reality that has no basis in fact. It is an instance of gaslighting — albeit an innocent one — and such is the case with the LOA. It is not real.
Put simply, the LOA purports that like attracts like. Positive thoughts emanate from your body as magnetic energy, then return in the form of whatever it was you were thinking about, such as money, a new car, a new lover, or even just a hotdog. As Byrne herself puts it, “the only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.” If only those poor Kenyans weren’t such pessimists! So basically, if you have suffered any kind of trauma, loss, or negative experience in your life, then it is your fault because you attracted it. Not only is this notion highly questionable and downright irresponsible, but the very foundation of the LOA is ethically suspect. The film’s promotional trailer, for example, is replete with such vainglorious money mantras as “Everything I touch turns to gold,” “I am a money magnet,” and my personal favourite, “There is more money being printed for me right now.” Dishearteningly, in an ever increasing materialistic and entitled society, this appeal to our insatiable greed is largely responsible for the LOA’s popularity.
So, what we get in The Secret is a self-ordained pantheon of shiny, happy, wealthy people who claim that the LOA is grounded in science: “It has been proven scientifically that a positive thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.” But the reality is, no, it hasn’t been proved at all! Here’s another belter: “our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective, and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful.” Those ungrateful cancer patients.! And here’s another gem: “you’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week.” Sure, if you convert your body’s hydrogen into energy through nuclear fusion. And finally, “thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you”, but in magnets opposites attract: positive is attracted to negative.
For all its claims to science, the LOA has zero basis in scientific reality. For example, according to the LOA, “every thought has a frequency…. If you are thinking that thought over and over again you are emitting that frequency.” The brain does indeed produce electrical activity from the ion currents flowing among neurons during synaptic transmission, and in accordance with Maxwell’s equations, any electrical current produces a magnetic field. But as neuroscientist Russell A. Poldrack of the University of California (a real scientist) explains, these fields are minuscule and can be measured only by using an extremely sensitive superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) in a room heavily shielded against outside magnetic sources. Plus, let’s not forget the inverse square law: as Michael Shermer explains, “the intensity of an energy wave radiating from a source is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from that source, so that an object twice as far away from the source of energy as another object of the same size receives only one-fourth the energy that the closer object receives. This means that the brain’s magnetic field of 10 -15 tesla quickly dissipates from the skull and is quickly replaced by other magnetic sources, not to mention the earth’s magnetic field of 10–5 tesla, which overpowers it by 10 orders of magnitude.”
Does Rhonda Byrne know what the inverse square law is? Does she refer to it in her book? The simple answer is: no.
But let’s not be too harsh on Byrne and her self-help fantasy, for it is undoubtedly better to think positive thoughts than negative ones, right? Wrong. In the real world, all other things are never equal, no matter how positive your outlook. Just ask the survivors of Auschwitz. If the LOA is true, then the Jews — along with the butchered Turkish-Armenians, the raped Nanking Chinese, the massacred Native Americans, and the enslaved African Americans — had it coming. The latter exemplar is especially poignant given Oprah’s endorsement of The Secret when she says: “the energy you put into the world — both good and bad — is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day.” So then, by this absurd logic, Africans created the circumstances for Europeans to enslave them. Does Oprah sincerely believe that? I suspect not.
You might ask, so what if people choose to believe in a fantastical version of reality rather than trust in scientific fact? I guess that begs the question from The Matrix (1999): do you take the blue pill or the red pill? But here’s the thing: there’s a massive difference between innocent gaslighting — as in promoting a belief in Santa Claus — and dangerous gaslighting, as in the case of the LOA. It’s all to do with the latter part of our definition of gaslighting, namely it’s emotional effects: gaslighting often results in feelings of confusion, anxiety, low self-worth, and the inability to trust our own reality.
The Secret is a hodgepodge of misplaced clichés, laughable quotes, and superstitious claptrap. It’s a playbook for entitlement and self-absorption and anybody who implements its so-called teachings in any serious way will likely make themselves more miserable in the longterm. Firstly, by promoting a ‘positive thoughts’ only mindset, people are at risk of what Manson calls ‘delusional positivity’. In his words: “The Secret actually requires that you never doubt yourself, never consider negative repercussions, and never indulge in negative thoughts” can be dangerous, leading to risky business decisions or investments, ignoring red flag behaviours, denying personal problems or health issues, and avoiding necessary confrontation. This is an extreme example of ‘confirmation bias’, which not only explains the so-called science of The Secret but makes a hell of a lot more sense than the flimsy ‘thoughts as vibrations’ theory.
So, what is ‘confirmation bias’? As human beings, we have a limited amount of attention for all the stuff going on around us and so — whether we realise it or not — we are always choosing what we pay attention to: to quote another over-used self-help platitude, ‘where our attention goes, energy flows’. The confirmation bias is the human mind’s tendency to notice and pay more attention to objects and experiences that confirm its pre-existing thoughts and beliefs. For example, we might spend years not really paying attention to what kind of car people drive, but then the time comes for us to start thinking about buying a car and, suddenly, we start noticing the make and model of cars all over the place. We start making decisions about which styles we like, what snazzy features we want, and so on. We start noticing these details because, for the first time, they are salient and relevant to our thoughts and desires, whereas before they weren’t.
Essentially, The Secret is an attempt to leverage the confirmation bias to one’s advantage. The idea is that if you’re constantly thinking positive thoughts about yourself, you will begin to notice little things in your experiences that confirm these beliefs, thus helping them come true. On the other hand, if you’re constantly thinking negative feelings about yourself, the negative feedback in your environment will stand out to you, thus making you feel worse. It’s simple psychology and has fuck all to do with thought vibrations.
Another example of the deleterious effects of the LOA is this: let’s say your friend believes in the LOA and claims to manifest the things they want into their lives. You are curious, so you give it a go, but you fail to manifest what you desire. Putting the fact that manifesting isn’t even real to one side, you may start to feel anxious, depressed, and even unworthy that the Universe is not working ‘for you’ and yet seems to be working for your friend. You start to feel bad about thinking negative thoughts, which only serves to perpetuate the cycle of negative thinking. Moreover, if you see your friend apparently manifesting more things into their life, then you may also desire more precisely because, when taken to its logical extreme, the LOA encourages you to always be wanting something, to never be content, and this can make you more miserable in the long run.
Finally, a common and cliché platitude espoused by LOA believers is that ‘I create my own reality’, but in fact by believing in the twaddle that is the LOA, those people believe in someone else’s version of reality, which is entirely fabricated: a ‘reality’ that has no basis in reality.
So, if the LOA is nothing but fantastical drivel, then why do so many people fall for it? Worryingly, a belief in the LOA — and the gaslighting effects associated with it — spreads like a pyramid scheme. If you’re desperate enough to feel better about yourself by adopting a philosophy of delusional positivity, that philosophy will appeal to others around you who are also desperate to feel better about themselves. In this way, by adopting a delusional positivity, you attract and surround yourself with others who are also delusionally positive: you take one person who decides to ignore reality in favour of feeling good all the time, then this sort of self-absorption turns off anybody who is content and rational, and instead attracts the most desperate and gullible. This person — who is delusionally positive — then attracts and surrounds themselves with other delusionally positive followers. Then what happens? As Manson puts it: “years later, one of these delusionally positive followers then decides to ‘manifest’ their dreams by spreading the law of attraction further to other desperate well-wishers. The chain of positivity carries on this way through the generations, where each author, blogger, or seminar leader who speaks ardently of manifesting one’s purpose, or believing oneself to happiness and bliss, or listening to the Universe, generates a new population of delusionally positive followers who then go on and do the same thing all over again.”
What’s the answer?
Dare to challenge what, on the surface, looks too good to be true because rest assured that, underneath, it is too good to be true. Instead, don’t fall for the gaslighting. There are other more balanced, rational, and less dangerous ways to empower yourself, enhance your wellbeing, and create the life you desire, and none of them involve the Universe, pseudo-science, or delusional positivity.