I’m having another run-in with believers in the so-called ‘Law of Attraction’ at Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development for Smart People forum (now closed, Dec 2011 – I wonder why that is). Someone posted to share their unease about it, and I (as John Freestone) dared to venture the opinion that unease was wise.
The Law of Attraction
The Law of Attraction, what is it? Basically, it’s the magical message that whatever you want you can have, you just need to believe in it enough. Your thoughts create, or deeply influence, reality. It was popularised in the 2006 film The Secret by Prime Time Productions.
Now, of course, within reason, that may be true. For a start, there is my internal, subjective reality, and my thoughts are a big feature in that landscape. Thinking positively, trying to look on the bright side of things, hoping, being optimistic, these things will help you to be happier, is that all it means?
Well, sometimes those interpretations are given, but some of the protagonists take it much more seriously, extending the influence of thought to the supernatural. Some take this to the extreme solipsism, in which objective reality is considered meaningless or not even real, a construct of the individual mind. And there are more complicated versions, in which human beings are creating various parallel realities according to the power of the ideas and the numbers projecting them.
Some of the other buzz words, then, are Intention Manifestation, since this is about manifesting exactly what you want, and Subjective Reality. The Law of Attraction is big business. If you google ‘the secret’ or ‘law of attraction’, most of the links you’ll find on the first page will invite you to sign up for instructions on how to get rich. Many of them vie for your interest by proclaiming they are the REAL Secret or Law, in a sick parody of the philosophy.
Steve Pavlina is one of the protagonists. I have discussed these views critically at Steve’s forum for some time, because I think they represent quite a significant risk to people’s psychological well-being, and perhaps their physical well-being.
There are important caveats: one must not dismiss the idea of mind-over-matter prematurely or completely. For a start, all of human culture, including every piece of technology, was in some sense created from thought, but the normal way of seeing this happening is through people taking action, discussing their ideas, moving their limbs, making experiments and finally developing the physical manifestations of their ideas. This they do without recourse to magic, without breaking the laws of physics.
LoA-ers (Law of Attraction practitioners and dabblers) often seem to ignore these limitations. Just believe and you can do anything! It’s an appealing slogan and a comforting place for those requiring a mystical worldview, but who reject what they call ‘religion’. However, as far as I can discern, there is no such magical ability, and there are some things people can’t do, and believing otherwise is simply to adopt another kind of mysticism. It’s amazing, actually, how venomous some LoA protagonists are towards ‘organised religion’ (often citing the believer’s enslavement to superior priestly figures), while they lap up every last mindless blog entry and fiercely marketed book, DVD, lecture, retreat or full-blown course of their New-Age gurus.
Then there’s the matter of mind-over-body. While it seems there is absolutely no meaningful evidence whatsoever of mind directly (i.e. supernaturally) influencing matter, there is quite substantial evidence of mental states affecting the physical world directly – only that world is limited to our bodies. This mind-body connection is seriously impressive, and it is a blessing in such instances as the hypnotic suppression of pain. It is something of a problem for the reductive processes of science, for instance when trying to separate the objective effect of a medicine from the ‘placebo effect’.
This in itself raises a peculiar set of philosophical and political problems. Sceptics often dismiss a treatment (or the whole of complementary medicine) because it has not been shown to be any more effective than a placebo, but this ignores the demonstrable usefulness of placebo. This must make us wonder whether we should consider the ‘objective’ effect of a treatment to be the only correct one. There may be millions of medicines and treatments which, if we could isolate their objective effects in a rigorous research project, would be labeled by science as ineffective, ‘no better than placebo’, yet millions of people may benefit from them because of the placebo effect, precisely because they believe them to be objectively effective. Medical science, by investigating these medicines, and then pronouncing them ‘useless’ – or worse, taking action to ban their sale on the grounds that they mislead people – would in real terms be harming whole populations, increasing suffering, perhaps even sentencing patients to early death. Even if it did not ban someone’s trusted placebo, the educational function of disseminating the truth about it could be expected to undermine the effect.
In considering this problem it seems there is almost a reversal of character in the typical responses: those who would normally be considered ‘alternative’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘new-age’, and would use unproven potions and herbal rememdies, might be expected to raise pragmatic arguments in favour of subjective effects and urging science to leave well alone, while the scientist, typically of a practical nature, might have a bout of intense idealism and argue that the truth, even if it hurts, must be known. Perhaps placebo will place medicine as a whole in a difficult position with regard to the hippocratic oath on this issue, as it may in other areas.
Applying this insight to LoA, does placebo stand as an indication that there was never any reality about a particular drug, and add weight to the claim that the world is made up of our thoughts alone? I don’t think it’s quite like that, although arguments like it are favourites of the LoA apologist.
Nevertheless, the deliberate harnessing of that ‘placebo effect’, for instance through self-talk, meditation, hypnosis, etc., may offer useful advances for us individually, and should perhaps usher in an alternative way of understanding alternative medicine. There may be a temptation for the sceptic to dismiss and ridicule all the scents and crystals and whale music and incantations, but there may be good sense behind these activities.
Good sense may be debatable in the case of the user who is an innocent believer, for then ‘superstition’ is more applicable and there is no telling what damage may result from accepting things at face value, but the sceptic would be using good sense, knowing that it’s all ‘in the mind’, but also being in possession of a true understanding of the mind’s capabilities. At the moment, people seem split rather diametrically between the credulous, taking advantage of their unconscious processes unconsciously, and the sceptic, generally shunning the subjectively good medicine. There is a problem for many, however, in continuing to invest psychologically in that subjective help once they know the science. I have just taken a course of glucosamine for my joint pain. The research I can find on the net is equivocal – as is so often the case – and without great risks being reported. In my new sceptical mindset, I know that it may have no obejctive function, but I also know that I can, to some extent, use self-talk and deliberate expectation about it, and that this has some chance of being useful, too.
There is, of course, no distinct division between this and performing magical rituals, with or without known placebos, if one can train one’s use of the effect. I could fill the old bottle with plain water, chant ‘glucosamus fixibackus’ three times, and save a bob or two. It is true that the mind has affected matter, should this piece of theory be true (and it occurs to me that I really need to learn more about the placebo effect), but let us be very clear that nowhere has the objective result of placebo travelled outside the confines of the body; nowhere has any spoon been caused to bend; nowhere has a single elementary particle been sent spinning in a different direction (they love the QM BS argument); nowhere have piles of cash manifested merely from thinking about it. However, we might have cured a bad back partly through belief, and been able to earn more cash.
The LoA protagonists are many and varied, but the basic idea of the mind attracting events into a person’s life dovetails with all sorts of other new-age woo. Erin Pavlina, Steve’s wife, purports to be a psychic reader, and there are quite a few members of the forum who are convinced of her, or their own, ability to divulge significant information to others (or discern it for themselves) by supernatural means. The idea that one is psychic is clearly very closely related to the supposed Law: the mind extends beyond physical limits and influences or picks up information removed in time or space. Again, a cold look at the data shows that such beliefs are not scientifically tenable. Psi research has become so desperate for results that it is now looking for the minutest signal in vast oceans of noise and still failing to find it. There is apparently no limit to self-delusion.
Skewing the Data
A set of psychological theories explain a good deal of the two beliefs (“I can mysteriously influence reality” and “I can mysteriously sense facts about reality”). The most pertinent, confirmation bias explains how we naturally tend to notice things that fit with our current beliefs and overlook things that don’t. As soon as we begin to investigate an idea, we skew the data. We don’t intend to cheat, but cheat we do, casually all day as individuals, and formally in research.
A long and solid series of experiments have demonstrated this propensity to fool ourselves. The file-drawer effect is another feature of the trick, a term used particularly to describe scientific (or supposedly scientific) experiments and the gathering of data, in which the researchers pay too much attention to results that support their hypothesis, the hits, and too little to those that undermine it, the misses.
In informal psychic research projects, for instance, it is typical for someone who is being tested and who believes they are psychic to write off sessions that showed no evidence of their ability, saying that they just weren’t focused or the vibes weren’t right. The effect then percolates upward through whole research projects and finally to meta-analyses, where it is particularly damaging to a clear view.
Research departments intending to demonstrate psychic abilities may have lots of results of different studies, but, understandably, only publish ones that showed some positive result. Scientific evidence in these fields almost always depends on a statistical balance between positive and negative results, since we can say we’re psychic and guess right a calculable percentage of the time. A phenomenon must show that it has a degree of reliability above what would be expected by chance. So if we consciously or unconsciously screen out the misses, we may appear to have a valid phenomenon when none exists, because we’re focusing on the hits. The name of the effect comes from the great number of results that are literally stuffed in a drawer somewhere, results that failed to demonstrate the particular hypothesis. Statistically, of course, occasionally studies will go ‘well’ by chance, but these are generally the only ones that see the light of day. Once you begin to grasp the subtlety and unfortunate power of this principle, scepticism is given a great boost. One begins to see that no news is – well – no news: in our ordinary life we hardly consider it, but scientific results are based on statistical significance and in that case no news is extremely significant.
Try it yourself, for instance by tossing a coin while intending to throw only heads. If you are honest with yourself and watch your thoughts carefully, you will have all sorts of illogical ideas, and these will increase the more you believe you can influence the coin, or the more you get into that mindset even temporarily. I would also hypothesise that humans are hard-wired to do so, that we have some kind of genetic tendency to superstition: certainly it is caused partially by the clear need for any animal to filter experience and create simple rules to follow, because of the high biological cost of processing large amounts of information. Typically, people will break the test up into sets, maybe of ten throws – you have to count to something – and then they start ‘forgetting’ past results that showed more tails than heads and, perhaps even more, the ones that showed a fairly even mix of heads and tails. Results you’d expect due to chance alone are boring old normal results: they aren’t news.
They play other tricks. I caught myself doing this when I tried: I threw nine tails in a row, and I was really quite amazed, even though I know full well that every throw could be equally a head or a tail irrespective of what came before – chance doesn’t count previous events, that’s central to the theory! (Of course, I was genuinely trying to demonstrate I had the psychic ability, concentrating and hoping and willing and wishing.)
By about seven tails my intuition overrode my mathematical knowledge and insisted I should be getting more heads than this. Finally, I got a head on the last go. Then suddenly this idea struck me from nowhere: maybe I am influencing the coin. Maybe those LoA-ers are right, but, because I’m a sceptic, I’m influencing the result negatively! Deep down I want to prove I’m not psychic even thought I am!
Can you believe it? I was contemplating turning a 9-1 experimental defeat upside down for the sake of contemplating that I might actually be psychic, on the verge of an exciting discovery and living in a wonderful mind-sensitive world, despite my scientific knowledge that this is my imagination! It’s no wonder the many worlds of woo have so many followers.
If the articles at The Skeptic’s Dictionary above (in bold type) have whetted your sceptical appetite, I highly recommend clicking on the relevant links further down the pages; there is much else to discover about selective thinking and self-delusion.
Unfortunately, the thread I alluded to was closed after a particular protagonist’s posts decended into personal abuse. At least that’s my reality.