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Tuesday 6 November 2012

Reviews: Why "The Secret" Gives Me Hives

Wish hard enough and the trees will plant themselves.

One of the advantages of writing a blog is that it gives you an outlet for the occasional spleen-venting.  One of my pet peeves of the past few years has been the popularity (now waning, thankfully) of The Secret, a set of ideas presented in a DVD and book by Rhonda Byrne, formerly an Australian reality television show producer.  If what follows seems a bit, well, cranky:  that’s an accurate impression of how I sometimes feel.

What is The Secret?

First, The (supposed) Secret is no secret.  It’s based on the idea that when you concentrate on something happening in the near future, you influence the actual probability of that event happening. Adherents also call this the “Law of Attraction” – which actually isn’t a law, just an odd idea.

So if you concentrate with all your heart on that BMW you might just get it, whereas if you expect things to go badly, they will. And this is independently of the influence of your thoughts over your behaviour – so it’s not just that if you want to be wealthy you’ll work hard and define your goals. The universe will respond to your desires and give you what you anticipate. Apparently.

The actual exercises invoked to shift the universe one’s way vary from proponent to proponent.  Reading them, it’s hard to escape the sense (despite denials) that the core idea in each case is “wishing will make it so.”

The fact that it isn’t a secret actually isn’t a big deal for me.  It’s not uncommon to say that the secret of investing is to buy undervalued stocks and sell overvalued ones, that the secret of goal setting is to identify distant goals then focus on the immediate steps toward them, that the secret to a long relationship is to overcome the natural temptation to guess what your partner is thinking and instead communicate. None of these ideas is guarded with lock and key; they are available to anyone. So if something that has sold millions of copies cannot reasonably be called a “secret,” who cares?

So what’s my problem?

Well, where do I start? I imagine it's obvious that I don't actually believe this idea. It doesn't fit my experience, it doesn't appear to fit the lives of my clients or friends, and it doesn't make logical sense when you follow it through to its conclusions. But fine: Lots of people believe things that I don't, and I don't blog about them.

Partly, The Secret doesn’t seem to have worked well for its developers. Look up the Wikipedia article on the subject, then the Wikis on the various people connected with the film. The few years since it was produced have not been kind to many of these people.

To be sure, informing people that “wishing will make it so” is an excellent way to make money, and the books and DVD have been estimated to have pulled in many millions.  But it would appear that the developers of the film and related products did not take care to envision future harmony amongst themselves.

It’s also not Eastern wisdom, despite frequent claims to the contrary. Anytime someone wants to get bogus credibility for an idea, they say it’s from an Eastern wisdom tradition. This is as silly as saying that it is from Northern or Southern wisdom, but in any case the Secret is a purely Western-based idea.

And: The Secret is portrayed as a selfish, consumeristic self-enrichment tool.  The film portrays case after case of people wishing for wealth, jewelry, clothes, cars – and never anything for the broader world. No one seems to hope for anything good to happen to anyone else, and it doesn’t seem to enter anyone’s head to envision a world without AIDS, global warming, hunger, or the American Republican party.

And then there’s OCD

I treat people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. Many people with OCD have spontaneous intrusive unpleasant thoughts, like throwing the baby off the balcony, fondling the rear of the person ahead of them in line, a relative’s plane crashing in flames, or hepatitis germs spreading on the kitchen counter and infecting everyone in the house.

These thoughts are typically produced by the person’s attempt to suppress them: they try not to think of pink elephants and as a result are obsessed with pink elephants. And they often worry: What if my having the thought means it will come true, or somehow makes it come true?

The Secret is like pouring gasoline on this cognitive fire: If you envision your mother developing cancer, you might bring it about. This makes it more important for them to suppress such thoughts, which makes them all the more insistent. Not true and not helpful. Thanks, Rhonda.

And quantum nonsense

Adherents of the Law of Attraction also make frequent reference to the idea of “Quantum Healing.” There truly is something remarkable about this term, as uttering it serves as an off-switch for critical thought within much of our culture.

Richard Feinman famously said that if you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory. Legions of nonphysicists nevertheless claim not only that they understand the theory, but also that they are able to make use of it (without the benefit of the physicists’ expensive colliders and other equipment) to change people’s lives.

The fact that quantum theory has little to do with self-improvement is no great impediment. Because so few people know anything significant about quantum theory, using the word “quantum” effectively shuts off debate and increases receptivity to whatever is said next. “Ah, this person has studied quantum mechanics, which is way beyond me; they must know what they’re talking about.”

Then there’s blaming the victim

I see other people whose lives have not gone well.  In fact, I have made it my life’s work to deal with negative outcomes.

In the negative, The Secret seems both false and unhelpful.

Worry does not appear to increase the likelihood of negative events happening – at least not directly.  A standard therapeutic exercise is to have a person list all of their worries over the past year or more. When they’ve finished the therapist then asks them to place a check mark beside everything that actually happened.

The point is to realize just how much of our time is spent envisioning negative futures that never arise. In fact, people often realize that the truly awful things that have happened to them are things that they never anticipated. We all have negative thoughts constantly that can surely make us miserable, but that do not produce reality in themselves.

I seem to have spent a great deal of my own life anticipating and envisioning possible catastrophes around every corner, but the disasters I envision never seem to come true. The stressful events that have happened have almost invariably been things I had never considered possible.

In the positive sense, The Secret also seems false and unhelpful.

Unrealistic positivity is as much a problem as negativity. Bankruptcy, excessive debt, and foreign wars are often the product of positive thinking. George W. Bush appears to have been a great positive thinker: we don’t need the help of other nations, we can cut taxes and increase expenditures and it will all work out, we can invade a country and expect to be greeted with open arms, the levees will hold even if we don’t fund their maintenance. The result was a profound weakening, possibly now irreversible, of the most powerful nation on earth. Mr Romney seems cuts from similar delusional cloth: We can spend more on the military, cut the taxes of the very rich, and the budget will be balanced.

At the level of the individual, positive envisioning can be destructive as well. “This time he won’t hit me.” “I can do the same thing as all those other times, but the result will now be better.” “Even though this person closely resembles my previous abusive partners, they’ll be different.” “This business idea is sure to make me a fortune.” “I won’t get addicted.” “I won’t get caught.” “I can still drive with four beers, and the traffic is light anyway.”

And inappropriate absolution.

The Secret absolves us of responsibility for one another.

The bad things that have happened to sub-Saharan Africa are not the product of colonialism, bad governance, western weapon sales, or misfortune; it is the result of the populations of these nations calling negativity upon themselves. The people who died in the Holocaust? They inadvertently brought it on themselves. The hungry, the poor, the ill? Not our problem, not our responsibility.

Is there any reality in The Secret?

Actually, I think there is. Envisioning what you want might help in two ways. First, the universe might magically rearrange itself to give it to you. I don’t believe that this happens, for reasons expressed above, but people can judge this one for themselves.

Second, clearly envisioning our goals may influence our behaviour in subtle ways to help us to achieve them. It is something of a cliché to say it, but we are unlikely to arrive at our destination unless we know where we hope to go.

Some of this is obvious. Knowing that I want to become fluent in French may encourage me to sign up for courses, spend time with French-speaking friends, and visit French-speaking countries – all of which may help transport me to my goal.

But there are subtle effects as well. Simply writing down one’s goals seems to make their achievement more likely. For many years I have made it a habit to sit down on my birthday and write down some goals for the year ahead. Often I have set the page aside and haven’t looked at it again for quite some time, only to discover it and realize that I have achieved much of which I had hoped to do. Look:  the hall closet really is cleaner, the bathtub has now been replaced, there is a new computer system for the clinic assistant.

“Aha” the proponents of the Secret will cry. “You’re criticizing the very principle that you are using!” I doubt it. I think that the act of formulating a direction, a trajectory, in my mind results in a fairly natural (as opposed to supernatural) selection of activities likely to take me in that direction. When I look at the goals I have actually achieved, it seldom seems like the universe has simply tossed a bone my way. I published a book because I wrote a proposal and sent it to a publisher. I got more fit because I made exercise a priority. I increased the number of trees in the orchard because I called the nursery and ordered some seedlings.

Things happened which were outside my control, surely. The nursery had the trees I wanted; the publisher liked my book idea. But I don’t need to invoke secret machinations of the universe to explain these events. Coincidences occur, people’s goals mesh, and some things work out. Many (actually most) of the things I envision (other books, other directions for the orchard, other lecture invitations) don’t materialize. With clients I often suggest one of my own life principles: Most things don’t work. That’s why we have to try a lot of things.

What we don’t need to do is sit on the couch, dreaming and waiting for the doorbell to ring.


  1. Great post.

    I've been railing against The Secret and the Law of Attraction for years and I'd like to join in your rant.

    It can be downright dangerous - as in the case of James Arthur Ray (who appears as an authority in The Secret) who was convicted of 3 counts of negligent homicide after his students died in a sweat lodge.

    It can lead to Self-blame - a friend whose mother died of cancer years ago felt massive amounts of guilt that she hadn't tried hard enough to visualize the cancer out of her mom's system

    It can lead to arrogance - taking credit for 'manifesting' things rather than recognizing and being grateful for those who took action and made sacrifices for them. A former business partner used to take credit for 'manifesting money into the company' when the more likely source of income was the hours spent in sales consultations by the rest of us.

    The equation: more desire for something = more chance of getting it - just does not hold up in the real world. In fact, there are many circumstances in which strong desire makes it more difficult to achieve a goal. Take social anxiety for example... or specifically public speaking... the stronger your desire to impress your audience, the more nervous you'll tend to be, and the less likely you are to impress them.

    This inverse relationship between desire for something and your likelihood of attaining it is evident in lots of areas, particularly social ones like dating and sexual problems like premature ejaculation or impotence.

    There's a generous helping of self-delusion that comes with this type of thinking. Any wish that comes true is taken as evidence that "The Secret" works, and any wish that doesn't is disregarded or attributed to the fact that the wisher wasn't clear enough with the Universe, or their desire wasn't strong enough.

  2. The only thing I find intriguing about The Secret is how come so many people are attracted to it.

  3. yeah, the secret. as you say, there are some grains of truth to it but in its entirety it is sad and utter nonsense. i tried to watch the movie and after 15 minutes could not handle it anymore, it was just too too awful. however, i noticed something interesting. it has made it a bit easier with some clients to even broach the subjects of goals and wishes. the first few times i discussed these issues with a client and they said, "oh, right, just like in the secret" i flinched but then i thought, okay, if that gives us a common language, why not.

    i know a number of people who have really gone down the drain with this idea. one person destroyed a beautiful business, which affected not only themselves but also their partner and the community who loved it.