The Secret

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you know about the self-help phenomenon called The Secret. Perhaps you even bought the DVD or book or had (multiple) friends tell you about it, or even buy it for you as a gift. The Secret is not without its critics, of course. And the real question in my mind is, if it’s so widely watched/read and if so many people are attempting to put its principles into practice, why haven’t we noticed the positive effects on large swaths of society (at least American society where it’s been marketed the most)? There are countless answers to this question, including, “it takes time,” “the effects are mostly internal,” and “it doesn’t work.” I have a different take on it.

There are roughly three groups of people with regard to The Secret:

  1. Those who already live it and see its tenets as natural and obvious
  2. Those who could benefit quite a bit, but whose strong critical thinking skills get in the way of efficacy
  3. Those who could benefit the most, but are not capable of practically employing it for a variety of reasons, including aptitude and discipline

Category 1 folks don’t see what all the fuss is about. Category 2 folks see it as snake oil. Category 3 folks are the biggest fans of The Secret and the ones responsible for its viral commercial success, but for the most part won’t see any long term benefits from it. Part of the reason for this last bit of irony is there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you want real change in your life, you have to be willing to work at it, and a couple of viewings of a DVD may only be the first 1%.

So where do I stand on The Secret? After watching it more than once that I think it’s about 75% “truth” and 25% mumbo jumbo. The true part, contrary to what the DVD would lead you to think is not mystical, can be easily explained by well-understood social and psychological principles, and its truth value is not affected one way or another by the other 25%. In other words, you don’t need to invoke quantum physics, talk of all-pervasive vibrational frequencies, or a vast conspiracy through the ages to either explain or employ The Secret. However, the evidence suggests that for the majority of consumers, those in Category 3, the mumbo jumbo may be necessary to build the “faith” and will to get them to give it a chance. Certainly the material has been published and presented many times before by many different people using different lexicons, slightly different methodologies, and vastly different explanations for why it’s supposed to work. Thus it stands to reason that the commercial/viral/memetic success of The Secret can at least partially be attributed to the packaging, including the bad pseudo-science.

What about the 75%, how can that be explained in ordinary terms without invoking a universal “Law of Attraction”? I’ll start by pointing out that many phenomena that exhibit law-like behaviors can be explained as emergent properties of complex systems without depending on the existence of a universal law of nature or anything supernatural. In a later post, I will argue that even seemingly fundamental laws like gravitation can be seen as emergent rather than innate.

The basic prescription in The Secret is a three step process of “Ask, Believe, Receive”. In other words (as it is explained in more detail), you should consciously think about (“ask the universe”) what you want to occur in your life, then cause yourself to believe that it will come true (again with lots of visualization, talking about it as if it’s already true, etc), and finally wait patiently with an open mind and heart while the law of attraction does its magic to achieve your desire. The strong claim that the video makes is that if you do these three steps correctly, the law will work every single time. Of course, this is an unfalsifiable claim (and thus cannot ever be disproved scientifically) because if you don’t get what you want it implies you weren’t doing the steps right. Maybe you didn’t really believe, or maybe you just haven’t waited long enough.

It’s too easy to play devil’s advocate to the claim that The Secret works. Instead, I’ll attempt the opposite and tell you why it <b>does</b> work (but not all the time), if you either have complete faith, or you have gotten past the specious argument that since it’s got some amount of bogosity and hype that it’s all just hogwash. For those who want the rational argument for why The Secret works, read on.

Imagining What You Want

At any given moment during the day, there are an effectively unlimited number of things you can think about and actions you can take. Due to conditioning, culture, and many other historical constraints, the actual set of thoughts and actions you are likely to engage in is a very small subset of the possible. When you imagine something and focus on it, that biases the set of likely future thoughts and actions towards possibilities consistent with what you are imagining. Additionally, imagining what you want opens your mind to perceiving things you would not otherwise have perceived or would otherwise have perceived differently. Achieving something imagined generally takes a decent number of path-dependent steps wherein any individual step is manageable and gets you in the general direction of the goal, but may require some course correction after the step is taken. Focused imagination is like a beacon that allows you to course correct both consciously and subconsciously, and without it, it’s very easy to get lost, easy for small directional errors to compound, and for you to lose the will to continue towards your goal.

Additionally, there is ample evidence from sports psychology that suggests that visualization is a powerful tool for peak performance. This is not surprising given that fMRIs show that largely the same activation patterns in the brain occur when you imagine doing something as when you actually do the thing.

Talking About What You Want

While it is not magical or the work of some mysterious force, people are attracted to people who are like themselves. When you talk to people about the things you want in your life, they can very easily make a determination as to whether you are like them or not. By surrounding yourself with people who have the same vision as you do and want similar things as you do means that you will all have help in getting there. At the same time, you no longer have as much time or inclination to interact with people who want a different future or who by their own words and actions drag you down or away from your goals. Yes, this is groupthink or brainwashing, but it’s the good kind. As long is what you and your cronies are striving for isn’t something like war or trampling on the rights of your fellow citizens. The Secret still works in those cases, but now it’s The Evil Secret.

Success Breeds Further Success

Certainly with initial success comes confidence, which in turn leads to future success in a virtuous cycle. But more than that, when you are successful at something, others notice and their reactions to that noticing will make it easier for you to succeed in the future. This can be plainly seen in Hollywood where the biggest stars are continually showered with free gifts and enticements to do business. When was the last time you got a weekend vacation to Napa fully paid for by a production company wanting to pitch you a movie script that will make you more money and bring you more fame, so that the next time it’s your whole family being flown by private jet to Fiji to convince you to be the lead in a mega-blockbuster which brings more success, etc. Whether you value things like money or fame is besides the point because whatever it is that you value, as long as there are others who want some of what you have or what you are likely to achieve, they will fall in line with you and make it easier for you to get to the next level or goal.

Believing You Can Achieve

Belief in yourself and in the proposition that “things will work out” is important for achieving goals. We know that if the goal is to get well again, the placebo effect (i.e. belief that you will get well again) accounts for 20% – 40% of the effect of any treatment. When you believe, this reinforces the imagination part, the talking part, and the attraction part (the quiet confidence of a believer is naturally attractive). Belief also blocks out destructive internal dialogs that we all have from time to time, and that many of us have as their standard thought patterns. It also blocks the effects of naysayers. To these points, Postman & Weingartner ask us in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)* to do a thought experiment:

Suppose you could convince yourself that your students are the smartest children in the school; or, if that seems unrealistic, that they have the greatest potential of any class in the school. (After all, who can say for certain how much potential anyone has?) What do you imagine would happen? What would you do differently if you acted as if your students were capable of great achievements? And if you acted differently, what are the chances that many of your students would begin to act as if they were great achievers? … There is… considerable evidence to indicate that people can become what others think they are. In fact, if you reflect on how anyone becomes anything, you are likely to conclude that becoming is almost always a product of expectations — one’s own or someone else’s. We are talking here about the concept of the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Belief/faith is an autocatalytic cycle, but it can be delicate; once shaken it unravels quickly. Where once you were crediting all your successes to The Secret, now you see that it was all just bunk. That bicycle you wanted for Christmas didn’t show up, so it has to not work, right? On the other hand, you could have gone out the day after and bought yourself one on sale if you failed to drop enough hints to your loved prior. Of course, now that you are a non-believer, you are in a different sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, one where you are looking for evidence to the contrary at every turn. Guess what you’re gonna find?

Examples of self-fulfilling prophecies can be found everywhere in social life, including the value of stocks, mutual trust between friends, and the safety of urban neighborhoods. When faith-based systems are stressed past a certain point, stock markets crash, friends become enemies, and neighborhoods turn.

For the computer geek, try to think back to the first time you really “got” recursion and could actually code a recursive routine that did something useful. If you were like me, you had to go through the thought process a number of times, get to the base case, and unwind the loop before you convinced yourself that it works. There may have even been an “aha” moment where prior you couldn’t write a recursive routine and afterwards you could write anything. For the less geeky, I liken the role of faith to the first time you were able to ride a bike without training wheels. You don’t need to invoke God or quantum physics to ride a bike or do recursion, but you do have to get out of your own way and choose to be a little out of control — just for a moment — for the virtuous cycle to achieve catalytic closure and become self-sustaining.

Three Types of Secret Admirers

I started this post by dividing the world into three types of people relative to their stance on The Secret. I’ll end in similar fashion by suggesting that there are three kinds of people who find success with The Secret (or any of the numerous similar self-help philosophies):

  1. Those with unshakable faith in themselves
  2. Those with unshakable faith in the world, i.e. that things will just somehow “work out for the best”
  3. Those with both 1 and 2

To those that say The Secret doesn’t work, they are right. But to those who say it does, I would also say they are right.

* Hat tip to Paul Phillips who recommended Teaching as a Subversive Activity.