A Letter to My Happiness Class on Why I Called BS on the So-Called Law of Attraction


Adler Heart Brain

[This is a letter to my happiness class]

Hello Happy People,

When happiness class ends, sometimes I wish we could continue in conversation. You may not feel that way. You might be thinking, “Thank-you Universe! Class is finally over.” But as a long-time professor-type, on many days I wish we could keep on talking and learning. I know that it may not surprise you to hear that I’m feeling like I’ve got more to say:).

This week (Tuesday, February 11) was one of those days. Many of you made great comments and asked big questions. But, given that time is a pesky driver of everything, I/we couldn’t go as deep as we might have. Here’s an example of a question I loved, but that I felt I didn’t go deep enough with:

“Do you believe in the Law of Attraction?”

This is a fascinating question with deep and profound contemporary relevance. At the time, if you recall, I had dissed inspirational statements like, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it” as “just bullshit.” Then, in response to the question of whether I believe in the so-called Law of Attraction, I said something like “I don’t completely disbelieve it” . . . and then pretended that I was in possession of a scientific mental calculator and said something like, “I believe things like imagining the positive can have a positive effect, but it might contribute about 3% of the variation to what happens to people in the future.”

Not surprisingly, upon reflection, I’m thinking that my use of the word “bullshit” and my overconfident estimation of “3% of the variation” deserve further explanation. Why? Because if I don’t back up what I say with at least a little science, then I’m doing no better than the folks who write wacky stuff like, “You can if you think you can.” In other words, how can you know if what I say isn’t “just bullshit” too?

At this point I’d like to express my apologies to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale for referring to one of his book titles as “wacky stuff.” However, in my defense, I read the book and I still can’t do whatever I think I can do . . . so there’s that . . . but that’s only a personal anecdote.

Okay. Back to science. Here’s why I said that positive thinking, as in the so-called “Law of Attraction” might account for only about 3% of the variation in life outcomes.

Back in the 1980s, I did my thesis and dissertation on personality and prediction. At the time I had four roommates and I felt I could predict their behaviors quite easily on the basis of their personalities. However, much to my surprise, I discovered that social psychology research didn’t support personality as a very good predictor of behavior. Turns out, personality only correlates with behavioral outcomes at about r = 0.3 or r = 0.4. You might think that sounds big, because you might think that r = 0.3 means 30%. But that’s not how it works. If you do the math and multiply the correlational coefficient by itself (as in 3 x 3 or 4 x 4) you get what statisticians call the coefficient of determination (in this case, 3 x 3 = 9% and 4 x 4 = 16%). The coefficient of determination is an error-filled effort to predict specific future events, as in, if your r = 0.3, then, if you know r, then you can be about 9% accurate in predicting an outcome.

Please note that everything is error-filled, including science, and including me and my shoot from the hip efforts at estimation and prediction. When I say error-filled, I’m not disrespecting science, I’m just acknowledging its limitations.

Okay. Back to the so-called Law of Attraction. In class I was calculating in my mind that if well-measured personality traits like extraversion or introversion only account for about 9-16% of the variation in behavioral outcomes, then the so-called Law (which I’m inclined to rename as the Hypothesis of Attraction) would likely account for significantly less variation . . . so I quickly did some mental math and “3%” popped out of my mouth. What I should have said is that humans are remarkably unpredictable and that personality barely predicts behavior and situations barely predict behavior and so when we hypothesize what might influence our future, we should be careful and underestimate, lest we appear foolishly overconfident, like many television pundits.

Somewhere around this time, someone asked if I thought the authors of books who advocated things like the law of attraction really believed in what they wrote or just wrote their books for profit. My response there was something like, “I don’t know. Maybe a bit of both.” To be perfectly honest—which I’m trying to be—one of my big concerns about things like the law of attraction is that they’re used to increase hope and expectations and typically come at a price. I don’t like the idea of people with profit-driven motives luring vulnerable people with big hopes into paying and then being disappointed. Sometimes I ask myself, “If someone has their life together so much that they discovered a secret to becoming wealthy by visualizing wealth, then they should already be so damn rich that they should just share their secret for free with everyone in an effort to improve people’s lives and the state of the planet!” The corollary to that thought is that if somebody says they’ve got a powerful secret AND THEY WANT TO CHARGE YOU FOR IT, my bullshit spidey sense sounds an alarm. Go ahead, call me suspicious and cynical.

Now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of positive thinking. A huge fan. I believe positive thinking can give you an edge, and I believe it can make you happier. But I also think life is deeper than that and multiple factors are involved in how our lives turn out. I don’t want to pretend I’ve got a secret that I can share with you that will result in you living happily ever after with all the money you ever wished for. On the other hand, I do want to encourage everyone to embrace as much as you can the positivity and gratitude and kindness and visions of your best self that we’re talking about and reading about for our happiness class. I want you to have that edge or advantage. I want you to harness that 3% (okay, maybe it could be 7%) and make your lives more like your hopes and dreams.

Later, another student asked how we can know if we’re just fooling ourselves with irrational positivity. Wow. What an amazing question. At the time, I said, we need to scrutinize ourselves and bounce our self-statements or beliefs off of other people—people whom we trust—so we can get feedback. One thing I’d add to what I said in class is that we should also gather scientific information to help us determine whether we’re off in the tulips or thinking rationally. Self-scrutiny, feedback from trusted others, and pursuit of science. . . I think that’s a pretty good recipe for lots of things. It reminds me of what Alfred Adler once wrote about love. . . something like, “Follow your heart, but don’t forget your brain!”

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. I hope your weekend is a fabulous mix of following your heart, and hanging onto the science.

John SF

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