Just in case you’ve never encountered the ‘Law of Attraction’ before, it’s a “New Thought” or (as the mainstream would think of it) new agey viewpoint popularised by the book and movie ‘The Secret’ which says that “people’s thoughts (both conscious and unconscious) dictate the reality of their lives, whether or not they’re aware of it. Essentially “if you really want something and truly believe it’s possible, you’ll get it“, but putting a lot of attention and thought onto something you don’t want means you’ll probably get that too.” (quote from the Wikipedia entry on “Law of Attraction“.
First, a bit of psychological context.
The therapist Stephen Wolinsky defines trance as being characterised by, among other things, a narrowed down or fixated focus of attention (you’re more aware of some things and less aware of others), and the spontaneous occurence of one or more trance phenomena (the kind of things you would see demonstrated in a stage hypnosis show such as amnesia, hallucination and so on). In his excellent book Trances People Live he suggests that we are in one kind of trance or another most if not all of the time.
This means that if someone has a strong belief, they will tend to ignore evidence to the contrary – or even blank it out altogether through the hypnotic phenomenon known as ‘negative hallucination’ (they don’t see things that are there). They will also tend to find evidence or see patterns that aren’t there (‘positive hallucination’).
Psychology terms this tendency ‘confirmation bias’ – although I think Wolinsky’s trance argument adds an extra level of explanation.
So – you could come up with counter examples all day and the true LoA believer will find ways round them. There’s another psychological phenomenon at work here, that Robert Cialdini calls ‘the consistency principle’ – once people see themselves as believers in something, they will act in ways that allow them too keep that belief and avoid ‘cognitive dissonance’.
So – when confronted with the argument that the LoA implies that the Jews somehow attracted the Holocaust, the 9/11 victims attracted that atrocity, and babies who get a terminal illness are somehow responsible, the true LoA believer will find an alternative explanation – either that ‘unconsciously’ or for reasons related to ‘karma’ the victims attracted the bad things that happened to them, or with the more sophisticated argument used by Steve Pavlina called ‘Subjective Reality’ – that “there’s only one consciousness, and it’s yours“. So everyone else in the universe, and everything that happens to them, is not attracted by their intentions (they don’t have any, as they are all projections of your unconscious mind anyway).
By their nature neither of these explanations are testable or refutable, so can’t be proved wrong. However, they do fall foul of the principle called “Occam’s Razor” which states that “states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible” or more crudely that “all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best.” This principle is at the heart of scientific rationalism, but apparently has passed the LoA believers by.
So, could there be a simpler explanation, one that would make sense to the scientific rationalists and stand a chance of helping LoA fundamentalists move to a more nuanced viewpoint? I believe there is – and it’s this.
To an extent the Law of Attraction is true. Obviously you are more likely to get what you want if you have a clear idea or vision of it. And because we don’t exist in isolation, but in a community of other people, to an extent what we ‘put out there’ will tend to become true, because other people will tend to respond to us (pass on opportunities, give us help, and so on) on the basis of how we act and appear to them. Similarly, if we are constantly thinking about what we don’t want, we make it more likely to happen. For example, someone who is terrified of being hurt in a relationship may keep such an emotional distance from a potential partner that they create the very loneliness they were afraid of in the first place.
Want some research to back this up? The psychologist Richard Wiseman in his book The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind found that people who are ‘lucky’ are, without realising it, acting in ways that maximise their chances of being lucky.
It also seems reasonable, and consistent with Occam’s Razor, to suppose that sometimes stuff – lucky or unlucky – just happens. So – some of our success or failure is attracted to us by our thoughts and feelings, and some of it is just dumb luck.
Unfortunately, because we human beings are not that self-aware, and the reasons we think we do things are not usually the real reasons, we don’t know which bits of our success or failure are what we have ‘attracted’ and which just happened.
To an extent, then, a person holding an ‘irrational’ belief that they attract their own success or failure may be more successful than the skeptic – because they will make sure that they have clear ideas of what they want. Also , if something happens that they don’t like, they would ask themselves “What do I need to learn from this?” and so stand some chance of learning from those problem situations that they have contributed to by their own actions or attitudes.
This belief would cease to be useful, I suggest, when you are so dogmatic about your beliefs that reasonable, well-intentioned people start to shun you, or when you devote so much energy to looking within for the unconscious reasons why you aren’t atracting everything that you want 100% of the time that you miss more obvious and rational reasons – like, you haven’t taken any action to make your desired results happen.
Looking back at this article, I think I’ve aimed it more at the ‘rationalists’. However, if you are a hardline believer in the Law of Attraction, and you are fed up with all these people who don’t ‘get it’, you might want to ask yourself “How is it that you are attracting all this unpleasantness and incomprehension?”
(Note: this is an old article from 2009 that I moved over from my Coaching Leaders blog, because it’s more at home here than among articles about Appreciative Inquiry, emotional intelligence, leadership and coaching skills. So there’s an outside chance you might have read it before.)