You should probably know from the start that I thought about giving this a less generous name. The one I most wanted to use was “The Law of Attraction is Hooey,” but I also thought about adding the snarky but overblown, “I’ll tell you The Secret:” to the front of it. Now that you know my feelings, lets get down to some strong reasons to question the Law of Attraction, as reintroduced to the general public by Rhona Byrne’s The Secret.
At first I considered this matter closed and unworthy of comment. Newsweek did an excellent piece about The Secret that pointed out a number of its flaws. But then a few days ago the popular Steve Pavlina–who claims to write “Self Help for Smart People”–mentioned it as if it was verified fact. That made me think this idea merited revisiting.
For those of you who don’t know, the Law of Attraction is defined by Wikipedia as such:
[The Law of Attraction] states [that] people experience the corresponding manifestations of their predominant thoughts, feelings, words, and actions and that people therefore have direct control over reality and their lives through thought alone. A person’s thoughts (conscious and unconscious), emotions, beliefs and actions are said to attract corresponding positive and negative experiences “through the resonance of their energetic vibration.” The “law of attraction” states “you get what you think about; your thoughts determine your experience.”
The first reason we should doubt the Law of Attraction is this: as Mr. Pavlina suggests, it’s popular with a lot of people who are already relatively well-off and successful. So what?
This matters immensely because the Law of Attraction is essentially an affirmation that every person is getting exactly what they deserve. This notion can be infinitely comforting to those with a great deal that they may not feel worthy of. If they are indeed getting exactly what they should be, as The Secret encourages them to believe, then they can feel absolutely comfortable and deserving.
Perhaps more troublingly, if these well-off people are getting exactly what they deserve, so are their brethren with less. The homeless man deserves to be homeless. The rape victim deserved to get raped. The victim of genocide deserved to be killed.
These assertions probably make you uncomfortable. And rightly they should, they are disturbing thoughts. But they are constantly and troubling forgotten by those supporting the Law of Attraction (or LoA). Some backers of the LoA would probably concede that these possibilities exactly the case if the LoA is absolutely true; if they then persist in believing in the Law, the absurdity of their minds truly stuns me. For most, I feel, this troubling implication of the theory (or “Law”) is a good reason to at least doubt its truth.
What’s perhaps more disturbing is Steve Pavlina’s defense of the Law of Attraction from just over a year ago. In it, he argues that there is only one consciousness–your own–and that the entire rest of the world only exists in what is effectively your imagination. Thus he argues that the poor people are only suffering because you are allowing them to in your mind, if you were to forgo this thought, they would no longer suffer.
This is an awfully convenient defense, but it is also absurd. If, in order to believe some set of self-help rules, you have to deny the existence of reality itself, you deny the need to go on living by the Law of Attraction or any other laws. You may as well do whatever you want, whenever you want and however you want. Blow up whatever you want, steal whatever you want, kill whatever you want, after all, the suffering is confined to your troubled mind, no?
I can’t help but wonder how Mr. Pavlina would feel if he were in a debilitating car accident. Or the victim of grievous violence. In the face of this, would a man continue to believe that there is no reality other than his own? Would he willingly accept that he brought this upon himself? In backing the law of attraction, this is precisely what he is claiming that the unfortunate should do.
The cognitive dissonance of this has made me irritable. I apologize for the lack of moderation in this, something I usually take pride in. I just find it difficult to accept that people are comfortable with the implications of this “Law.”
Now, I would also like to take this opportunity to specify that the troubling implications of the LoA are not a reason to claim that it can do no good. As Harvard psychologist Carol Kaufman told Newsweek:
I don’t think you can actually attract things to you. But if you’re profoundly open to opportunity [as the Law of Attraction encourages], then when ambiguous events occur, you notice them. I think what positive thinking does is raise your consciousness to possibilities so they can snag your attention. We’re starting to see some empirical studies on that now.
Indeed, I believe intensely in the power of gratitude, something encouraged by many LoA supporters. One of my favorite quotations is what the author Melodie Beattie has to say about gratitude:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.
But gratitude itself should not be confused with the Law of Attraction. The Law of Attraction is too grandiose and encompasses more than positive thinking and gratitude. It claim to know too much and affect too much the nature of reality.
In general, I think it is both more useful and more prescient to take the good advice that the Law of Attraction can encourage, and deny all of its troubling implications. Is there much left of The Secret when one does this? No, not really. Is that really a problem? Not at all.
11 responses to “The Law of Attraction is Hooey”
I just had a good hearty laugh at “the cognitive dissonance of this has made me irritable”.
Thank you. Thank you. I needed a good hearty laugh. Because the cognitive dissonance of so much going on these days, makes me irritable…
I like the “hooey” title better…
You know, I’m going to change it to that. I didn’t really like the title I had been using anyway. Well, and because you said so…
I just popped back over here, and now I’m laughin’ again…
so we both used the term cognitive dissonance in our most-recent posts. great minds think alike.
i’m in full agreement with you. it’s a thought process used by a number of christians to justify things in the name of god, as well.
[…] how he’s going to New York, I’m never very compelled. Nor when he talks about the law of attraction. But overall, where they tend to be is more important than where a blog sometimes is, and so […]
I think the thing that is missing here in your understanding is that the Law of Attraction is not about “deserving”. What it is saying is more like a statement of mental physics: “like attracts like”. There is nothing about “deserving”. If the apple falls on the ground, did the apple “deserve” to fall? No, it just did. There really is nothing moral about the Law of Attraction – it’s as unrelated to morality as gravity is. It’s not saying that homeless people “deserve” to be homeless – it’s saying “here is a tool to use to stop being homeless”.
And in order to use it, you have to accept that you are responsible for your condition in life – because that is a prerequisite for change. It doesn’t say you deserved that condition – just that you are the only one who can now change it. The concept of “deserving” is irrelevant. That’s tough to accept but when you do you realize the power of the concept.
However, I do agree that rich, healthy people could be more humble about explaining it. But they aren’t the only ones who work with these concepts – just the ones with enough money/influence to talk loudly about it.
Emma, that’s a very interesting point. I do think it’s worth considering how much the Law of Attraction asserts a causal relationship and how much a moral one. You’re indeed right to say that a strict reading shows that the homeless man didn’t “deserve” homelessness, he merely “attracted” it. By thinking thoughts that “attract” homelessness, he caused his homeless. He may or may not then “deserve” to be homeless.
Nonetheless, whether it’s a moral or mere causal relationship, it remains deeply problematic. Consider the victims of a hurricane or earthquake. I have no doubt that’s it morally repugnant to say that they “deserved” their fate, but I only have slightly less doubt that it’s morally repugnant to say that they “attracted” or “caused” it.
Whether bad things happen to good people because they really “deserve” them or because they merely “attract” them, I find both answers deeply unsatisfying. It’s much more sensible to believe that these things happen for reasons that “only God knows” than to believe that they brought disaster upon themselves. And to me, it seems even more reasonable to say that we live in a world full of millions of random happenings over which we have no control nor hope of controlling.
Well, it makes sense to me in that (a) I can see it in my own life, how I have various negative beliefs in certain areas of my life, and negative things seem to “show up” that confirm those beliefs – and conversely, (b) I can see areas of my life that work fairly well, and I notice I don’t have the same kind of limiting beliefs in those areas. I can also observe others who struggle with those same things, and I can see how they have negative beliefs that I don’t have. I think “limiting” is actually a more accurate word to use than “negative”. The Law of Attraction is saying “you will attract as much good as you can envision for yourself”.
My experience is anecdotal and correlative, not really causal proof. But I do believe that if I can work through my negative beliefs and change them, it will change how I interact with situations and therefore change my reality. Is there a deeper level of causality where my thoughts affect material reality? I’m not entirely sure, but I’ve had enough “coincidences” happen when I am really in the flow of life that it makes sense to me.
I don’t think it makes sense when you apply it to natural disasters as a whole, or systemic economic problems like homelessness. I think it generally is only helpful to individuals when it prompts them to examine and change their own thinking. For instance, how does a certain person deal with a situation like a natural disaster – do they react by shutting down or by going forward and finding opportunities in it? And how does that attitude affect what happens next to them? That is the level it is dealing with I think.
Focusing on “bad things happening to good people” misses the power and purpose of studying the Law of Attraction. There aren’t really “good” people – there are just people. We are all innocent, ultimately – all trying our best to meet our needs. And “bad things” happen to all of us. Such is our common humanity. From that place, we ask “How can life be better?” That is what the Law of Attraction addresses.
The Law of Attraction is ultimately not about control (although I do think people try to use it to control their fate) – it is about accepting a flow of good that comes from God. The idea is that this is available to everyone, and anyone can accept it at any time and their life will begin to flow more. It’s not a good you can control – only accept. It does not mean anyone is “bad” if their external circumstances look “bad”. If you are ignorant of how the Law of Attraction works, then of course you will end up drawing “bad” things to you, or limiting circumstances, because our culture is steeped in negativity and many of us are raised with many limiting beliefs about who we are and what we can have or do or be. So it’s not at all a judgment. Rather, it’s an opportunity to change the situation we find ourselves in, whatever that may be.
The Law of Attraction is not saying that people *mean* to cause their “bad” fates. It’s saying that they do so *unconsciously*. And that by becoming conscious of what those beliefs are, they can change them, and then attract better situations. There is no blame or fault because the unconsciousness is innocent.
Let’s say that someone is in a house surrounded by food, but for some reason he believes that he shouldn’t eat it, that it is not for him. In fact, he is so used to this belief that after awhile he hardly sees the food at all. But every day he is hungry. Then one day someone knocks on his door and says “Hey, did you realize that you are surrounded by food?”. He might argue and say “Why would I be so hungry if that were true? Do you think I’m stupid?”. But no – of course he is not stupid. He has been searching for food his whole life – and he is in a lot of pain from being hungry. He just did not realize that it was his own mind and his beliefs that kept him from seeing what was right in front of him. He needs to learn to see, to accept, that the food is for him, and that it is OK for him to eat it. He needs to accept that he doesn’t have to be hungry. It is OK for him to be nourished. That food was meant for him.
This might not make sense unless you’ve had the experience of realizing there is “food” right in front of you that you are not letting yourself have. Good that you push away – or that you don’t believe you deserve. This is a level of awareness that not everyone has – but eventually, after pursuing their “good” long enough by doing “real world” stuff many people realize that there are beliefs in their own mind that are stopping them *more* than what is outside them. That is certainly something I have realized. So this is where rewriting your beliefs comes in, and this is what the Law of Attraction is talking about. It is not about making people feel bad about their circumstances – it’s meant instead to offer a way to change those circumstances.
Emma, there’s a lot of stuff in there (I do like the food analogy), and all told I feel like we actually mostly agree on this. I agree that the Law of Attraction can help people to realize all that they have that they’ve previously taken for granted. That it can promote gratitude and awareness and general openness to the positive opportunities that life unexpectedly offers.
But I think those things can be–even should be–understood separately from a theory of life that carries a lot of troublesome philosophical baggage. As I said in the original piece, I’d not deny that good can arise from one believing in the Law of Attraction, but I’d much rather that people pursued those goods in and for themselves and left behind the whole “Law of Attraction” frame.
I sense that you’re more attached to it, but willing to admit that it’s not really a law governing the whole universe. To me, that means we should completely dispense with the term, but I do see some logic in your keeping the term and idea around and alive.
Well, in general, I think that the Law of Attraction is accurate. That it is in fact a law that governs the whole Universe. That it is in fact part of physics, and that eventually we will understand it better.
I also think that the variables involved are enormous and complex and involve a lot of unconscious beliefs, goals, and thoughts. So it’s not as simple as “think good thoughts”. And yet, generally, when I *do* it, then I *get* it again. When I come from the point of view that my life is a trap where I am forced to be unhappy, my life starts to really suck. When I come from the point of view that I am the Source of my life and it doesn’t *have* to suck- then my life gets better. So, I think it’s true, or at least, that it works, so there is something true about it.
Lastly I think that people generally understand it (or misunderstand it) from whatever place in consciousness they are at. So the best way to approach it is to say “I don’t really know how it works – but I’ll try it out”. That way any preconceptions and limited beliefs *about* the Law, and the possibility that good could be that simply attained, will not get in the way of practicing it.
[…] Byrne is a good columnist “whipping boy” — I’ve penned an attack myself — but this piece from Adam Alter rises above by actually offering scientific results in […]