You’ve probably heard about, and perhaps read, a book phenomenon called The Secret. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen lots of negative reviews about its new age mumbo jumbo.
As I understand it, the central concept is something the book calls the Law of Attraction. Essentially, you focus on positive things and the universe will attract those things to you.
One skeptical reviewer picked the most outrageous sounding example in the book to point out how ridiculous it is. Apparently the book claims, without science to support it, that if you want to be thin, you should avoid overweight people, even to the extent of avoiding looking at them.
Clearly, that’s mumbo jumbo.
Today I read in the news that researchers have discovered weight to be “socially contagious.” Your chances of becoming obese are 57% higher if you have ONE friend who is obese.
It’s probably premature to declare this a fact. The media isn’t good at getting this sort of thing right. But I’d be surprised if it’s wrong. After all, humans conform to their friends’ habits in every other realm, from clothing, to music, to choice of words. It can’t be too surprising to learn that they start eating the same.
Friends influence friends. That’s obvious. But can you also become overweight just by looking at overweight people? My guess is that you can. Humans are natural copiers. Your choice of clothing, for example, is influenced just as much by what you see on strangers as on friends. And your notion of what is acceptable and normal is probably more determined by strangers than by your one or two close friends.
How about success? Can the universe provide success just by focusing on it and avoiding thinking about failure? I’ve seen no research on that topic, but wouldn’t you be surprised if success isn’t socially contagious too?
Stanford University creates an enormous number of entrepreneurs and other successful people. I’ve often hypothesized that half of Stanford’s success is because the students are brilliant, well taught, and screened for high potential, and half is because the environment breeds success contagion. I imagine it would be difficult to graduate from Stanford and settle for an ordinary life. The impulse to copy the other go-getters would be mighty strong.
I’ve often written about my own experiences with affirmations, the practice of writing your goals 15 times a day. It seems to work much of the time, at least in my experience, but presumably not because of any magic. At least one probable explanation for its perceived effectiveness is that focusing on goals changes the person who is doing the focusing.
In a book called The Luck Factor, the author and researcher, Richard Wiseman (Google it), discovered that people who expect luck will notice opportunities in their environment more readily than those who don’t. And he learned that you can train people to expect luck, and cause an improvement in their ability to spot opportunities, that look like luck, when they pop up. I can imagine affirmations tuning a person in the same way, until it seems that extra luck is being provided by the universe, but all that’s happening is that it’s more easily recognized.
Affirmations probably also increases a person’s natural level of optimism, especially if you believe it works. I can imagine optimism working to harden people against the inevitable setbacks and obstacles along the way to success. To the extent that affirmations might increase a person’s stick-to-itiveness, his perception might be that the universe is removing barriers.
To be fair, there’s also some selective memory at play. I’m sure people who use affirmations, or The Secret, tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. I recall about six ridiculously unlikely successes of my own with affirmations, and one quasi-failure that I still think will pan out. (There’s the optimism thing.) Realistically, I might be forgetting some failures. And I have no way of knowing whether I would have had the successes without affirmation.
As I said, I haven’t read The Secret. I don’t endorse it. But if you think the concept has no value because it’s not backed by science, don’t be surprised if that changes.