How Bad is The Secret?

Not as bad as you think. The Secret, of course, is the huge best-seller (now #2 on Amazon) that claims you can get what you want by applying “The Law of Attraction” — namely, that if you think about something it will come to you. According to Wikipedia, “there have been no widely recognized studies demonstrating that the [Law of Attraction] actually works.” The book has been — not to put too fine a point on it — ridiculed, for example by the author Barbara Ehrenreich.

I learned about The Secret last July from my friend Sarah Kapoor, who made a CBC segment about the Shangri-La Diet. She told me about nine YouTube spots (Parts 1-9), each 10 minutes long, that together made a movie. I watched only Part 1 (now unavailable). It wasn’t enjoyable. It seemed like a parody of a film about science, and not a funny one. Sarah said it was growing like wildfire but at the time the segments had received only a few thousand views so I wondered what she was talking about. Time has proven her correct.

Is The Secret complete nonsense? It sounds like complete nonsense, the writers of Wikipedia apparently think it’s complete nonsense (“no widely-recognized studies . . . “), Barbara Ehrenreich thinks it’s complete nonsense (she calls it “mass delusion”), but I don’t think it actually is complete nonsense. Around 1980, Robert Cialdini, a psychology professor at Arizona State, and Kathleen Carpenter, an undergraduate, did a remarkable study. They gave Tempe residents one of two paragraphs to read about the benefits of cable TV (a new thing at the time). One was a dry statement of the benefits; the other asked the reader to imagine partaking of the benefits (“take a moment and think of how . . . you will be able to spend your time at home, with your familly, alone, or with your friends”). A month later, these residents were offered the choice of whether to get cable TV or not. Of those given the dry information, about 20% subscribed; of those given the “take a moment” statement, about 50% subscribed. A huge difference, with nontrivial monetary consequences, from what seems like a tiny treatment. The title of the published article, which appeared in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1982, vol. 43, pp. 89-99) was “Self-relevant scenarios as mediators of likelihood estimates and compliance: Does imagining make it so?” Imagining did make it so, in a surprising way. The effect is much too large to be dismissed. I don’t think it has been repeated, although I’m not sure.

I learned about this study from the excellent new book Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

10 Replies to “How Bad is The Secret?”

  1. I saw (not with my full attention, but close enough) the movie when it was circulating on YouTube recently. It was very slick – almost too slick – and certainly not brimming with science. However, I actually got a lot of out of it. I don’t believe that the universe will rearrange itself to your thoughts, but I know enough about Psychology (thanks to S.R. and some other professors @ Cal) and from my experience to know that some of it does make sense. Your thoughts and your attitude (for lack of a better word; I sound like a parent here) affect how your day is going to go, how perceptive you will be to opportunity and hazards, how people will treat your, and so forth. It doesn’t sound quite as mind-blowing as the universe changing to conform to you, but I can see how one could extrapolate that out…

  2. I myself am fascinated with the LoA from a *psychological* standpoint. I don’t think it actually influences the outer world directly, but rather does so through self-fulfilling prophecy effects. If you believe you’re going to succeed at something, you’re going to invest more effort in it and be more willing to take the risks that are usually necessary to make something successful.

    “The Secret” doesn’t actually contain that much useful information, although it introduces the idea of the “emotional guidance system”, as a way of moderating one’s emotions by observing the thoughts that create them. I’ve found this to be an incredible tool for myself and my coaching clients, as it lets you directly identify illogical or less-than-optimal thought patterns, and improve them, with corresponding improvement in mood and personal effectiveness.

    The book “Ask and It Is Given” has a lot of useful information in it (including a wide assortment of techniques for altering mood and/or thoughts) as long as you can ignore all the stuff about beings on another plane of existence manifesting stuff in the physical universe and all that. If you just look at the parts that are about what’s going on *inside* an individual person, it’s surprisingly useful.

  3. Visualization, using the imagination, has been used to improve skill and technique in sports, and reseach is being conducted to see if it can increase muscle skill. Mind-body, in this case. Imagination and dream-mind is where creative art begins and issues forth, bringing vision into a facet of reality through canvas and paint, music, poetry, storytelling. What’s equally interesting (at least in my experience) is when one is focusing daily for an answer to some question, for instance, potential answers begin to come into focus, or suddenly appear…and it feels like the same process as when I go into a focused and receptive mental state to write or draw, etc. It’s a given, to me, that “it” will happen through that kind of receptiveness and expectation, especially with growing confidence as one is rewarded with inspiration. Maybe not scientific (?), but it is real in experience.

  4. Do you have another example besides the cable TV?

    The study of cable TV dealt with an outcome that the people had control over themselves: to get cable, all you have to do is sign up. To get most other things like jobs, romantic relationships, children, you rely on other people.

  5. I don’t think that result has been experimentally repeated. At a bookstore event I heard a little bit about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. It was a little bit the same thing — Waters seemed to have a very strong vision of what she wanted and that helped bring it into existence. Of course the vision was far from enough by itself. But maybe it helped — I gotta read the book to be sure.

  6. I have been trying to contact Sarah Kapoor and haven’t been able to fing any current contact info. Is she still at cbc? I thought that she had her own production company. I saw her in the Past Life Investigation series and at the time I thought that she might be interesting in a documentary fim idea that I had. Several years have past and now that I am ready to put my plans into motion I can’t find out how to cantact her. Can you help????

  7. I wonder if the Shangri La diet could be effective with the problem of alcohol consumption ?
    (Tell Sarah who was asking …and wish her well)
    PS I hasten to add that I have no personal problem with alcohol !

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