If you’ve ever come across a self-help book, chances are you’ve heard about the law of attraction, in some form or the other. The law of attraction states that like attracts like, meaning an individual will tend to attract what they focus on. If you focus on positivity, good things will happen. But, on the other hand, having negative thoughts, will lead you to experience bad circumstances and outcomes.
The concept of the law of attraction is highly popular among New Age circles, made famous by best-selling titles like “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill or “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. The idea is that your thinking manifests reality. For instance, one technique for using the law of attraction involves visualizing a goal and then believing you already accomplished that goal. A person might set a goal to earn a million dollars, visualize what that would look and feel like, and then simply wait — but not really act with much intention — for the universe to guide you along the way in order to manifest the tools you need to reach this goal.
Although proponents of the law of attraction swear by it, claiming it has changed their lives for the better, once you dive deep into its core concepts you quickly find that this is no law at all. Not a natural one, at least, like the law of conservation of energy or Archimedes’ principle, but just a ‘supernatural law’, meaning it is not rooted in any sort of scientific reality.
It is difficult to summarize and dissect the law of attraction because it can mean different things to different people. But the most prevalent views encountered in the movement typically involve pseudoscience and, frankly, senseless New Age gibberish.
While there’s no harm in having a positive outlook on life, hopping onto the law of attraction bandwagon may end up having the reverse effect than what you might expect, putting you even further away from your goals than before.
The law of attraction is rooted in New Thought, a 19th-century metaphysical-religious healing cult movement whose proponents believed that human thought, if properly channeled, could manifest in changes in its followers’ lives. New Thought was founded by Phineas Quimby, who employed a form of hypnosis called mesmerism and claimed he could heal people through the power of suggestion. His entire philosophy was founded on the notion that all physical illnesses are derived from the mind, as a result of the patient’s mistaken beliefs. It follows that the cure for anything from cancer to the plague lies in changing one’s beliefs.
“Disease is the misery of our belief, happiness is the health of our wisdom, so that man’s happiness or misery depends on himself. Now, as our misery comes from our belief, and not from the thing believed, it is necessary to be on the watch, so as not to be deceived by false guides. Sensation contains no intelligence or belief, but is a mere disturbance of the matter, called agitation, which produces the mind, and is ready to receive the seed of error. Ever since man was created, there has been an element called error which has been busy inventing answers for every sensation,” Phineas Quimby.
New Thought is foremost about having a positive and optimistic outlook on life and its outcomes, as believers thought that by following ‘the truth’ — which comes in continuous revelations — they would be provided for by God. The law of attraction is very similar to New Thought, with the distinction that it isn’t necessarily as religious and doesn’t necessarily claim that physical illness is the result of bad thoughts.
The first mention of the term “Law of Attraction”, in the sense of creating your own reality, can be found in the 1906 book “Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World” by William Walker Atkinson, who introduced a lot of the concepts and language used by modern law of attraction practitioners, such as energy, vibration, and manifestation. In 1928, Napoleon Hill used the term “law of attraction” frequently in his book The Law of Success in 16 Lessons, following up with his most famous work, Think and Grow Rich, published in 1937, which promised to disclose “the real secret” to success without ever revealing it by the end of the book, leaving room for much speculation and interpretation.
The law of attraction finally made its breakthrough into the mainstream with the 2006 movie The Secret and the subsequent self-help book with the same title by Rhonda Byrne. Millions of people across the world were enchanted by The Secret, which preached that thinking about certain things will make them appear in one’s life, citing historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill who supposedly understood this “secret”, or the law of attraction, and actively followed it in their lives.
How does the law of attraction work?
The law of attraction supposedly allows you to shape your own reality by focusing on what you want to achieve. That’s pretty straightforward and relatable, but this is not the same thing as setting goals and planning on how to best achieve them. While proponents of the law of attraction note that some action is required to make it work, the idea of action is always in the background. Instead, people who start practicing this law are instructed to let the “universe” take the wheel because opportunities, people, and resources will show up out of the blue so long as you are open to them and have the right mindset.
In order to manifest your reality, people who live by the law of attraction use all sorts of psychological tools and gimmicks. This includes visualization exercises like mentally picturing a goal in the future, such as making a fortune, having a baby, or writing a book, or bringing it to life by drawing it or writing down empowering statements. Many times, people make a vision board, where they collect all sorts of images or text snippets that align with their future goals and aspirations. Writing a gratitude journal is encouraged as focusing on the things you already have and are grateful for supposedly invites more abundance into your life.
Another basic principle of the law of attraction is that if you really want to achieve a goal, you should never have any doubt about attaining it. The idea of doubt is, in the first place, negative, and you are encouraged to keep negative thoughts as far away as possible. Instead, you should live your life as if your goals have already happened. For instance, if you would like to build wealth — a common goal among proponents of this philosophy — you should avoid scarcity thinking and live a life of abundance instead.
Why the law of attraction is pseudoscience and rubbish
Virtually all the books and seminars related to the law of attraction mix banal truisms and magical thinking and disguise them as hidden information that is now being revealed to you, promising to change your life. Just look at these quotes for instance from various Law of Attraction gurus.
“When you offer a vibration, the Universal forces are working in concert with each other in order to satisfy you. You really are the center of the Universe.” – Abraham Hicks.
“If you’re thinking of debt, that’s what you’re going to attract.” – Bob Proctor
“What you focus on with your thought and feeling is what you attract into your experience.” – The Secret Movie
“You are deserving and lovable. Your dream partner will come into your life when you fully accept that truth, and you open yourself up to receiving that.” – Reese Evans
“The Great Secret of Life is the law of attraction. The Law of attraction can also be called the laws of creation. In other words, as if not happening to you, you are creating it.” – Rhonda Byrne
“That principle can be summed up in three simple words: Thoughts. Become. Things.” – Mike Dooley.
According to the law of attraction, there is no such thing as coincidence. Instead, your thoughts and emotions have magnetic properties, literally like magnets (?!?!), and are described by frequencies that vibrate and resonate with the universe. Events and people that share the same frequencies are attracted to the thinker, mediated by a godlike agent, so positive thought frequencies will attract positive things and vice-versa.
Works like The Secret often mix scientific jargon and genuine scientific concepts with unfounded and unsubstantiated claims. You’ll hear a lot about magnets, energy, and — brace for it — quantum mechanics to explain the inner workings of the mind and how everything in the universe is connected.
You’ll hear people who could barely stay awake in high school physics class make very specific technical claims with a very nonchalant certainty, such as that ‘thought energy’ is 40,000 Hz. If by thought energy they mean brain waves, those are quite slow ranging from 1 to 100 Hz. Another common figure suggests we have 70,000 thoughts a day and each has a specific frequency or wavelength of energy. Each thought interacts with the ether, the medium that conducts thought into the universe (… sure), which apparently creates whatever you’re thinking about. The more intensely you think about something, the stronger the vibration, which segues into the notion that positive thoughts have a high vibration, whereas negative thoughts have a low vibration. You can read more about this nonsense in an article by psychologist Neil Farber, who read every law of attraction book he could get his hands on and went undercover to become a certified “Advanced Practitioner of the Law of Attraction” so none of us has to.
There is never any meaningful evidence to support the law of attraction. There are instead countless anecdotes and stories. For instance, in The Power, the followup to The Secret, Byrne mentions a woman who finally left an abusive relationship, yet she “never talked negatively about her ex-husband but instead gave only positive thoughts and words about a new, perfect, beautiful husband.” It didn’t take long for her, we’re told, to find a “perfect and beautiful” husband with whom she now lives happily in sunny Spain, the very country the woman dreamed of someday visiting. As if all of this is supposed to prove a point.
Other times, when scientific references are provided to support the law of attraction, these are epic fails. One often-cited ‘science study’ that proves the power of thought over matter is Masaru Emoto’s water and rice experiments. The Japanese man placed equal amounts of rice and water in three beakers and for each day for 30 days, he approached each jar and uttered positive or negative words. To the first jar, he said “Thank you”, to the second “You idiot!” or some other hateful slur, and to the third, he said nothing to convey indifference. The first beaker fermented nicely with no mold, the second was covered in black mold, and the third beaker had the worst black mold of the three. He performed similar experiments with water, showing that when frozen, its crystals will be “beautiful” or “ugly” depending on whether love or hate energy is directed towards it.
However, Emoto is no scientist. He studied international relations at Yokohama Municipal University and is a certified “doctor of alternative medicine” by the Indian Board of Alternative Medicine. He’s published a book called Messages from Water, but never published his water and rice experiment findings in a peer-reviewed journal. He does, however, sell ‘healing’ water products. Triple blind experiments have, of course, failed to show any effects.
Other so-called proof has been published in dubious journals and use flawed methodology, such as this South Korean study which found women who had been prayed for from the other side of the world by Christian prayer groups in the United States had nearly twice as high a pregnancy rate than those who had not been prayed for, while they were undergoing in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer.
But why are so many people enchanted by the law of attraction and the many snake oil salesmen that peddle it? The law of attraction seems to make sense due to inherent flaws in our thinking, chief among them being confirmation bias — the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. In this context, people have the tendency to remember the things that line up with positive results more often than those that don’t. We remember all the times we got called for a job interview ‘when the stars aligned’, but discard other instances when nothing happened. Dr. Farber also discussed another bias called apophenia, which is the belief that there is meaning behind random data and occurrences. For instance, a friend might call you the exact same moment you were thinking about them, that’s pretty amazing, right? Well, what about the hundreds of times you thought about them and the phone was silent?
The law of attraction is not being spiritual
There’s nothing wrong with having a positive outlook on life, being optimistic, seeking out successful people, and believing in yourself that you can attain even your wildest dreams — quite the contrary. Studies show that higher levels of optimism were associated with longer lifespans and living beyond age 90. Research also suggests that happy, positive people are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors such as overeating, smoking, or substance abuse, and are more likely to be successful at work and in relationships.
But that’s not the same as being delusionally idealistic.
The law of attraction is not about being optimistic or even spiritual. It’s about passively waiting for the ‘universe’ — whatever that means — to give you a metaphorical green light. Yes, some law of attraction coaches preach there’s no such thing as the law of attraction without the ‘law of action’ (do we have to call every idea a law now to get people’s attention?), but this philosophy is still about passively waiting for the universe to reciprocate. Action is often about acting upon ‘signs’.
The law of attraction is a cult concept — and like most cults, it can be very harmful and introduce needless suffering into one’s life.
It’s incredibly solipsistic and egotistical to think that the entire world revolves around you and simply by putting out positive thoughts or “energy”, you will eventually be rewarded with opportunities.
And there are many things about drinking the law of attraction kool-aid that might actually hold you back and, frankly, make you an a-hole.
The law of attraction says like attracts like, which often is interpreted as your life outcomes are the result of your thinking. So, it follows that poor people are poor because their mindset is that of scarcity, and people suffer from depression because they operate at a low vibration. With this mindset, it’s easy not to have empathy and compassion for people struggling with finances, mental health problems, illness and substance abuse.
Life isn’t all about positives. You can’t put a positive spin on everything, and ignoring the negative aspects of your life will generally make them worse. Sometimes the world just won’t cut you some slack, and that doesn’t mean it’s all your fault. That’s actually one of my biggest beefs with the law of attraction — the notion that virtually every problem in people’s lives is largely their fault. When something bad happens, it’s always their fault. Or it’s your fault. That’s quite the contradiction since blaming is “negative” and “low vibration”.
The fact of the matter is that the universe is random and life is not fair, and while we have agency and should be responsible for our actions, not everything in this world is under our control. And that’s totally fine.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.