The secret of The Secret as a voluntary behavioral modification technique

For most of my adult life, I have believed in “the law of attraction” as a voluntary behavioral modification technique. The law of attraction holds that what we think about determines what we attract into our lives. It may be encapsulated in the phrase, “thinking makes it so.” Or, a common catch phrase is “as you believe, so you will receive.”

A few years ago, the “law of attraction” caught fire when the movie, The Secret, came out and was featured on the Oprah Winfrey and Larry King’s shows.  Both talk show hosts asked those who had appeared in the movie variations of these questions: “Can you really think your way to financial riches and success? What about people who have serious health issues? Can they really think them away? Are they to blame for their illnesses just because they aren’t positive enough?”

About six months after The Secret came out, a colleague and I bumped into each other and she began talking about how she was fighting discouragement since her career hadn’t taken off as she had hoped. “The law of attraction people say that all I have to do is think positive thoughts to attract into my life what I want,” she said. “What a joke!”

I looked at her face and winced inside, since I do believe in the law of attraction.  But I also knew that it did take more than to just “think positive.”  As a child, I was raised to believe that “thoughts are things,” so going from that belief to a general acceptance of the law of attraction was an easy step. Close friends knew about my beliefs, but I didn’t go public with them because of the woo-woo factor. I didn’t want to diminish my credibility as an academic scholar and behavioral scientist.

Yet I am also a curious researcher, so I don’t foreclose any possibility, including ideas that some people think might be out to lunch. The more I read about the law of attraction, particularly after The Secret came out, the more startled I was to find out that several of its major precepts were consistent with current behavioral science research about how to voluntarily modify your behavior to achieve your goals.

As criticisms of The Secret grew more widespread, I quietly began to compile a list of behavioral science theories that supported the law of attraction. At last count, I am up to about 20 such theories, all supported by empirical research.  In other words, regardless of what you may have heard about the law of attraction, the core idea has firm grounding in research. I would go so far as to say it represents evidence-based practice (for those of you who care about this).

Recently, I read somewhere that both Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson, among others, had read and benefitted from Napoleon Hill’s original (1928) Law of Success. Many believe that this book spawned the whole industry of the law of attraction including The Secret. I grew curious and downloaded Hill’s Chapter 1 from an online source. It has blown me away with its sound portrayal of how people work. I have now gone through Chapters 1 and 2 and am eagerly looking forward to finishing the entire series of 16 l-o-n-g chapters.

In subsequent posts, I will summarize Hill’s principles as I understand them and tell how behavioral science research supports them. I won’t do this all at once. Rather, I will write about it over the coming weeks or months as inspiration strikes.

What the Law of Attraction Is Not

First, though, let me tell you what the law of attraction is not, despite all the hype about it. It is not:

  • A belief that all you have to do is think a thing and make it immediately so
  • A belief that if you smile a lot, all is well
  • A claim for how to get rich overnight
  • A victim-bashing belief system that blames people for their problems

So What IS the Law the Attraction?

Rather than describing the law of attraction as a cheap, easy way to claim your wildest dreams, Napoleon Hill places it at the center of his systematic approach to personal development so that you may achieve the life you want to have. His program requires commitment and rigorous practice in the principles. But so does any program or set of principles that require you to change the way you have always done things and adopt a new set of habits.

I’ll explain more in the next post.

Meanwhile, I’m more than interested in what you think about all of this:

  1. What do you think about the law of attraction?
  2. What about it turns you on or off?


  1. Carole Marmell


    I can understand your reluctance to investigate something as ephemeral as the Law of Attraction, but I would urge you to continue. We in the social sciences limit ourselves to whatever is measurable, because that’s how we define ourselves as a “science.” Unfortunately, that leaves out an important part of ourselves, which is more likely to be the basis of our perceptions and actions.

    Whether you call it “magical thinking” or “The Force” (Star Wars), we tell ourselves to “fake it until you make it” and “think good thoughts.” We assure our dying patients that “it’s okay to let go” and we feel guilty if something bad happens to someone we thought ill of. In “American Beauty,” Annette Bening prepares herself for a real estate open house by repeating to herself, “I will sell this house, I will sell this house.”

    Please continue. As always, I admire your courage.

    • Jean L.


      Thanks for these comments, Carole. It is indeed ironic that so many people do believe that their thoughts can heavily influence their futures, yet we then discount others when they make such claims. It’s a thin line between positive assertion of our ability to control our future and victim-blaming when that future doesn’t turn out as we had hoped. And you’re right. I was indeed reluctant for years to talk about these things publicly. But most of that just fell by the wayside as I read study after study supporting the Law of Attraction and learned that Napoleon Hill developed his Law of Success based on 500 interviews with the support of maverick Andrew Carnegie. I value *your* support, Carole.

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  3. Reply

    The exploration of the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical fascinates me as perhaps the only legitimate quest for understanding, regardless of what “flat earth” proponents might say about my “woo woo round earth imaginings.” The roots of these thoughts reach back to Aristotle, as its branches reach out to redefine the concepts of physical science today.

    I have considered myself a metaphysician since the “thought as a thing” meme resonated immediately the first time I was exposed to it as a young actor in Manhattan. Thomas Troward’s 1909 Edinburg Lectures are AMAZING, and I am currently re-reading Wattles (1910).

    I don’t believe that Ramachandran, one of my favorite neuroscientists for many years, has come out in direct support of “mind/body medicine” per se, but his linking of the function of mirror neurons to his research on phantom limb pain comes pretty darn close! If “mere” thought can influence ANY thing in our physical universe, if we are to maintain even a tenuous grip on our claim that we are creatures of logic we must rethink its mechanism of action on EVERY thing in our physical universe. And we are doing so.

    From 1979 to its closing in 2007, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR), amassed data on, among other items considered beyond the woo-woo fringe, like remote viewing, the influence of MIND on subatomic particles. That their research continued for almost 30 years eclipses the fact that their findings are considered “inconsequential” by some and “embarrassing” by others.

    The reality that we lack cogent explanations for the nature of matter and consciousness themselves, much less their relationship to one another, says nothing about the existence of those cogent explanations. The physical sciences have long been stymied in their quest for a theory of “unified field,” perhaps because they have confined their search intra-paradigm. The more we learn about the brain, the less we understand about the mind.

    ONLY last night I was fascinated by a 1993 feature in Psychology Today by Marc Barasch, “Welcome to the Mind-Body Revolution,” in which he quotes Larry Dossey, M.D., co-chairman of the Panel on Mind/Body Interventions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    “In my opinion, the most important research activity in the entire field will be the investigation of nonlocal manifestations of consciousness.” (NON LOCAL!!) The panel’s report, Barasch goes on to say, explains that “studies in mental and spiritual healing show that the mind can somehow bring about changes in far-away physical bodies, even when the distant person is shielded from all known sensory and electromagnetic influences. These events, replicated by careful observers under laboratory conditions, strongly suggest that there is some aspect of the psyche that is unconfinable to points in space, such as brain or body, or to points in time, as in the present moment.”

    Physics has been led on a merry chase through monistic ether since the discovery of quarks, past the point of no return since neuropeptides (“messenger molecules”). Quoting Barash, “The mind, it is rumored, has escaped the brain.”

    The entire field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is built upon the idea of a “mind” that it able to influence both body and brain, and there’s now more than a little hard science backing that assertion.
    ( – many references to credible scientists to add to your “list of behavioral science theories that supported the law of attraction.” – unless you have already mined this resource)

    That said, I am not personally a big fan of The Secret, any more than I can embrace American “shirt-box” Buddhist approaches since I began to dip my toes into the waters of Tibetan Buddhism. The Secret’s marketing was brilliant, along with the idea for the script and approach, and the film’s entire production crew was top notch. Yet, to my mind, The Secret glosses over some essentials in service of sensationalism. It left the door wide open for detractors by failing to state clearly, as does Wattles,

    “Thought is the creative power, or the impelling force which causes the creative power to act; . . . but you must not rely upon though alone, paying no attention to personal action. That is the rock upon which many otherwise scientific metaphysical thinkers meet shipwreck — the failure to connect thought with personal action.”

    LOTS to explore here, and I’m thrilled to discover that we have yet another area of mutual interest.
    mgh (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and ADDerWorld – dot com!)

    • Jean L.


      Hi Madelyn, I truly regret that I haven’t had time to respond to your provocative and thoughtful post before now. Yes, we are on the same page. I have read much about nonlocal phenomenon and have been wondering how much of what I have read I would talk about here. Right now, just addressing the behavioral science support for the law of attraction has been more than sufficient. I am going where the reading and my interests take me, and I suspect at some point, I will talk about the evidence for nonlocal phenomenon.

      I agree with you that the Secret as hyped by the media ignored the necessity for action. As I have tried to show in this series of posts on Napoleon Hill, this was a grave omission. Even so, what plagues many people is that they take action and nothing happens. So, it’s not just that action must be taken, but also how to know what is the right action to take. I am still amazed at how well Napoleon Hill dissected how to make that determination. As I continue to read his book, chapter by chapter, I find myself changing, even though I already knew the science underlying what he is saying. There’s something about seeing it all put together in one volume that I have found so impactful.

      Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your comments very much.

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