The Secret promises we can ‘manifest’ what we want. But if that’s true, why aren’t we all rich and famous?

The Secret promises we can ‘manifest’ what we want. But if that’s true, why aren’t we all rich and famous?

Imagine you really wanted something and all you had to do was ask the universe and you would get it. That’d be awesome, right?!

I present this to my students in my first-year Research Methods in Psychology course, in the first session of the semester. Then I ask them what they think.

The first respondent is usually bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They say something like: “Absolutely! You can achieve anything you want if you put your mind to it!” Emboldened, a handful of others express similar sentiments. Naturally, there are also sceptical students, but at this point it doesn’t suit my agenda to give them much oxygen.

Next, I tell the students I presume they’d all love to achieve High Distinctions in my course. I tell them it is, in fact, possible, and I’m going to share how it can be done. At this point, even the most sceptical students are intrigued.

I tell them all they need to know is … The Secret.

A self-help megaseller

The Secret is a 2006 feature-length film and then book created by Australian Rhonda Byrne, who was a television executive when she came up with it.

The book has sold more than 35 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages. Byrne has gone on to produce several related books, including The Greatest Secret, and associated merchandise, like a card deck.

It was even adapted as a romantic drama film, The Secret: Dare to Dream, starring Katie Holmes and released in 2020. (The Guardian described it as “inoffensively middling […] with nothing of note other than a few laughably dumb moments”.)

Others have also got in on the act. For example, there’s a DVD titled The Secret Behind The Secret, in which a self-help guru purports to channel a spiritual being called Benjamin.

The Secret’s fundamental claim is that a law of attraction operates within the universe: we become or attract what we think about most. In effect, positive things happen to positive people and negative things happen to negative people. Importantly, we are not passive recipients of our outcomes. Rather, we manifest our outcomes by actively thinking about them.

The Secret: Dare to Dream, the 2020 adaptation starring Katie Holmes, was described as ‘inoffensively middling’.

Oprah Winfrey, who lavishly embraced The Secret, devoting two episodes of her talk show to it in 2006, said it embodied the message she’d been trying to share for 21 years: “you are responsible for your life”.

As others have pointed out, these ideas are not a secret and they’re not new.

The Secret is effectively a repackaging of the “power of positive thinking” pop psychology from recent decades – and, centuries earlier, the quackery of the metaphysical movement.

Read more:
How to avoid ‘toxic positivity’ and take the less direct route to happiness

Victim blaming

Much empirical psychological research suggests thinking and feeling positively is likely to be associated with more positive outcomes.

But there’s a stark gap between the blithe blanket statements of The Secret and the empirical studies that have tested the qualifications and nuances of the effects of positive expectations.

It’s in that gap where The Secret becomes an easy target.

For instance, The Secret is good news for anyone fortunate enough to be blessed with an eternally sunny disposition, but less so for anyone struggling with chronic depression. The Secret suggests depression and its consequences are the fault of the victim. If only they could think more positively!

Taken on face value, the principles espoused in The Secret should mean the end of poverty and war. Perhaps we’re not wishing hard enough?

Elsewhere, The Secret has offended physicists with its misappropriation of quantum physics principles to explain the “law of attraction” (in itself a pseudoscientific idea).

And yet … people love this stuff.

Read more:
What causes depression? What we know, don’t know and suspect

An alluring fiction

On Amazon, more than 40,000 customers have taken the time to review the book. The average rating is 4.6/5. Perhaps this should not be surprising.

The Secret (superficially) taps into a spiritual realm and research demonstrates that spirituality nurtures and comforts many. The Secret speaks to a search for meaning and we know feeling a sense of purpose in life provides a measure of happiness. The Secret proposes the individual has the power to control their own destiny – and research demonstrates the role a sense of personal control has in people’s lives.

And The Secret encourages magical thinking, which some people may be prone to more than they realise. The Secret promises the alluring fiction that – just for once – things in life might be easy.

The Chaser’s War on Everything questioned The Secret’s ability to deliver almost 15 years ago.

Back in the classroom, in this Trumpian age where truth is in the eye of the beholder, The Secret reminds us the principles of the scientific method are still important when it comes to critically consuming information.

There are several ways of knowing about the world. We can defer to authority. We can rely on our intuition. We can employ logic. And we can make observations based on our experiences.

Pseudo ‘experts’

To some extent, Rhonda Byrne and her devotees leverage these knowledge sources to help give credence to The Secret. For example, it has been endorsed by high-profile influencers (like Winfrey) and prominent US personal development gurus (like Bob Proctor, John Assaraf and Jack Canfield). Byrne claims eminent historical figures – including Plato, Shakespeare and Einstein – knew the secret and employed its principles.

All these people are experts, or at least present themselves as experts. So they must know what they’re talking about. As they’re authority figures, we intuit they can be trusted.

Unfortunately, it’s the equivalent of toothpaste advertisers dressing an actor in a white coat to imply they’re a scientist, who recommends a particular brand of toothpaste.

Oprah Winfrey embraced The Secret, helping to make it a bestseller.

To persuade you, The Secret takes you down the peripheral route, the one where you don’t put much effort into your research – “Einstein used it! There must be something to it!” – rather than the central route, where you think critically about claims. “Just because she says Einstein used it doesn’t make it valid. And how does she know he used it?”

The Secret appeals to intuition, by appropriating spiritual and scientific language. To the extent an individual believes in a spiritual dimension to this world, or that they can control their own destiny, The Secret speaks loudly.

On the other hand, anyone who thinks critically about its claims presumably finds themselves arriving at the maxim that if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Positive thinking plus effort

Back in the lecture theatre, my students unpack the claims of The Secret. Quite reasonably, they suggest a whole bunch of important ingredients are needed in addition to “positive thinking”, if someone really is going to manifest their deepest desires. Things like hard work, perseverance, motivation, skill and ability.

The Secret is less able to appeal to logic, though it attempts to by referring to the pseudoscientific “law of attraction”. Again, the secret of The Secret’s success lies in the suggestibility of association. Referring to a “law” implies there is a scientific basis to the principles – and we all know science is logical, right?

A key component of the scientific method is that theories must be testable. Testing theories requires making observations – that is, collecting data.

If personal experience is one form of empirical evidence, then The Secret performs very impressively. There are thousands of testimonials on the internet from people around the world attesting to its ability to deliver results.

But dig a little deeper, and it’s clear this anecdotal evidence (“it happened to me, therefore it’s a thing”) almost always reflects the problem of the illusory correlation. Two events occur in close proximity to the other and rather than putting it down to coincidence, for example, people presume the first event caused the second.

This is even more likely to occur when an individual is looking to confirm – rather than test – their beliefs.

So, individuals wanting to see evidence The Secret works will find it. They ask the universe for a pay increase and two weeks later they get it. The possibility the pay increase was always on its way, due to their previous hard work and diligence, does not seem to be relevant.

Before my students leave, I wish them all the best for the course and their other university studies. I tell them I hope they all achieve the outcomes they desire.

And I remind them some of the principles embraced by The Secret do have some merit and are supported by empirical psychological research. Particularly, the idea that having a positive attitude tends to produce positive outcomes – though not always, and not because some magical connection with the universe made it so.

The post “The Secret promises we can ‘manifest’ what we want. But if that’s true, why aren’t we all rich and famous?” by Peter Strelan, Professor, School of Psychology, University of Adelaide was published on 02/26/2024 by