The Secret: A Rant Against Self-Help Pseudo-Science

by ToriDeaux on April 23, 2007

Every few years, a new book or movie captures the New Age Heart of the World (or at least middle class America). These bestsellers promise of everything from enlightenment and powers of levitation to riches and world peace, and are hawked with all the sincerity, appeal and effectiveness of a celebrity diet fad.

This season’s run-away hit is called The Secret. It’s a book, it’s a DVD, it’s a down-loadable video file. It slices, it dices, it steams the wrinkles out of your laundry while you sleep.

It also manages to misrepresent science, history, and philosophy. It belittles the hard work and exceptional achievements of individuals like Einstein, Shakespeare and da Vinci (all of whom are pictured in the introduction of the DVD, and are presumed successful because they knew The Secret) Ito promotes a philosophy of narcissism which blames victims for their own circumstances. All of this for the purchase price of 19.95 (or just $4.95 pay per view, online)

But never mind all that… quit focusing on the negatives! Because that is, in fact, the big Secret: Think Positive. That’s it. If you learn The Secret you can get rich, and healthy, successful, popular, famous and oh yeah, did we mention RICH? (and did we mention 4.95, pay per view?)

The Secret isolates the popular notion of positive-visualization, cranks it into hyperdrive, and applies it to to the Self and personal desire. Then it slaps on a label of The Law of Attraction, and pretends that the whole thing is a revelation backed by both modern science and thousands of years of wisdom.

The oogity factor is unbelievable here. I’d really fall in love with this, in a B-movie kind of way, it if it weren’t so spiritually, philosophically, historically, scientifically and religiously bankrupt.

The Secret’s Law of Attraction isn’t a proper law by legal or scientific standards; it’s just the idea that our thoughts determine our destiny, with a pseudo-scientific label attached.

Plenty of modern books have been sold on the subject, and it’s been floating around under that name for a hundred years at least (according to Wikipedia) I vaguely remember it being a concept in Western Occultism as well (a movement that’s always been fond of making up pretentious sounding laws) though I’m too lazy to go look it up right now.

So the premise behind The Secret it isn’t a new idea, or even a recently uncovered secret of the ages; it’s just positive thinking with better marketing.

Prettied up in antiqued parchment and images that draw on the Da Vinci Code Craze, the editing of the first DVD intro implies ancient and violent conspiracies to suppress this information.

References to long standing and powerful secret societies really help get movies and books onto the best sellers lists, it seems.
But here’s the Secret, the free version. To get what you want in life, says the film, all you have to do is think about what you want, and avoid thinking about what you don’t want. You don’t even have to monitor your thoughts with much discipline. According to the trailer on YouTube, it’s all taken care of for you, automatically, once you understand The Secret (which isn’t a secret, but they’ll sell it to you anyway).

As an example of a just-add-water instant success program, The Secret is impressive.

In fact, I’m not sure it even requires water; it certainly doesn’t require work.

There’s the rub.

Great success requires great effort.

Positive thinking is just one potential part of that effort, and not even a necessary part of that effort.

And even great effort alone (no matter how positive) does not equal success.

Great success requires a lot of factors coming together in the right way at the right time, many of them environmental and out of our control.

Good things don’t happen just because we focus on them, and bad things don’t happen just because someone fears or focuses on them. Things happen, and they often happen no matter *what* we are thinking, because our thoughts are only a minor part of the equation that creates our lives.

Even more important, the impact of our thoughts in that equation varies, according to on the external circumstances of our lives.

Those people in affluent, privileged and protected societies (like middle class America, meaning me, and probably you) have more options, more possibilities for both success and failure, more opportunities to change their own individual fortunes. For those of us whose over all circumstances are pretty positive, our thoughts often have a huge impact on elements of our life, because our environment isn’t the sole or even primary limiting factor in our lives; our own choices make a big difference.
But for people in war-torn, poverty-stricken and disease-ridden areas, the impact of an individual’s attitude is much more limited. Through disciplined thoughts, they might find happiness and peace even in the worst of circumstances, but it’s unlikely that thought alone will change their larger circumstances, much less end a drought or manifest a 40 inch television and a power plant to run it.

It’s narcissistic in the extreme to believe that our individual thoughts are the single most important factor in reality, a narcissism that is apparently found throughout The Secret. In her article The Hubris of The Secret, Valerie Reiss mentions a disturbing quote from the film: “It’s not your job to make the world a better place…”

Oy. And people are promoting this as spiritually sound?

If there is any shred of truth to the idea that what we hold in our minds manifests in reality, in any sense, then it would be our job, obligation and duty to hold the greater good in our minds. The power implied in The Secret should, by its very nature imply a great responsibility towards others…. But responsibility on a global scale isn’t an easy sell in a privileged society, not compared to magically thinking a hawt pair of Prada shoes or a new fully loaded SUV into existence.

Thankfully, are quite a few folks debunking The Secret, and I expect more to crop up. Interestingly, some of the debunkers are using it as a platform to expose the larger problems of extreme-feel-good-philosophy that pervades the Oprah generation and feathers the nests of Sylvia Brown, Deepak Chopra, and countless other pseudo-gurus.

Since better minds than mine are debunking this stuff, I’ll stop ranting, drop a few links, and return to my dedicated practice of defensive pessimism.

MindTWEAK: Open your mind, but not so far that your brains fall out.

More Offsite Info:

eSkeptic Magazine: The Secret Behind The Secret (scroll down for the right article)
Ken Wilbur and Julian Walker: Exploring “The Secret.” Part 1. (“It doesn’t help for people to be eating cardboard for lunch, even if it has ‘God’ written all over it….”)
The Law Of Attraction Is Real, The Secret Is Fake (worth reading just for the explanation of quantum flapdoodle)
Salon Magazine on Oprah’s promotion of The Secret (interesting perspective)
Anthony Cerminaro on Debunking The Secret (the last paragraph rang a little too true)

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael 05.20.07 at 7:24 pm

You’ll never plough a field by turning
it over in your mind.

That pretty much debunks The Secret right there! What’s funny is that on the show The View, Deepak Chopra bashed The Secret as “garbage.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! I think the not-so-secret of The Secret is that it’s still quite easy to separate fools from their money if you can convince them they’ll make money for no work.

2 M.T. 05.21.07 at 2:05 pm

I love that field proverb, Michael.. I wish I’d used that as the MindTweak in this article!

As for Chopra, one of the tricks of psuedo-mystics is to “debunk” their competition — it helps them to seem as though they are critical thinkers and interested protecting their audience from lies and nonsense. Some psuedo-gurus create a network of peers, who support one another’s lies, while trashing anyone outside of it. It’s a nasty but effective method.

And just for general info – I call them psuedo-mystics because they mangle the mystical/spiritual theories just as badly as they do the scientific ones.

3 Galba Bright 07.14.07 at 8:12 pm

Nice critique MT. I like the way you hold these ideas up to the light. I’ve not seen the Secret. I am familiar with the Law of Attraction and I feel it has some merit. The problem of personal development ‘formulas’ is that they are often marketed as one stop painless panaceas. As you say in your follow up article:

“These tricks benefit the producer, not the consumer.”

A discerning person will strip the sense from the nonsense, retain that part which is meaningful and edge their way to a positive personalised path of growth.

4 M.T. 07.17.07 at 9:28 pm

Thanks, Galba..

I agree with what you’ve said here.

I’ve long wondered if you can *teach* someone the basics of discernment… I’ve tried a few times in the past, with limited success. Seems like its a matter of the right mental tools, or something? Certainly related to EQ, I’d think!

5 Galba Bright 07.21.07 at 2:38 am

MT: an excellent question. I think discernment can be taught in part and I think it’s closely connected to the critical thinking skills that you refer to in your sacred cow post.

However that kind of approach requires courage. I don’t think courage can be taught. EQ can help because it can help a person become more aware of their deepest values. That process can help a person become more discerning. What do you think?

6 M.T. 07.23.07 at 8:33 pm

Maybe courage can be taught – Set up an experience that allows people to face their fears, go through the experience, and come out the other side. Whether we come through without a scratch doesn’t matter – the fears are almost always worse than the reality, and that knowledge is part of having courage.

In any case, it certainly does take courage to question a mega-trend like The Secret. Or to work on your EQ ;)

(I’m a fan of anything that helps people to know themselves and the world around them better, which automatically makes me a fan of tuning up EQ)

7 Galba Bright 07.29.07 at 7:48 pm

hmm MT, I’m not so sure about the courage thing. I’ll think about that some more.

I enjoyed this post and the ensuing discussion about the Secret and I suspect you will also

8 M.T. 07.30.07 at 6:00 pm

Thanks for the link, Galba. I did find it interesting. I may go back and comment on the idea that The Secret seemed to sell best in the United States because we’re A. impressed by packaging B. overly concerned with finances.

I suspect the US success is more because of the exposure from Oprah’s endorsement than anything else — though her heavy influence says a lot about American culture, too!

9 @Stephen 09.07.07 at 5:21 am

MT, we Americans are not impressed with packaging, we are OBSESSED with packaging. The messenger becomes part of the message.

10 M.T. 09.07.07 at 9:22 pm

Stephen: Maybe our obsession with packaging comes from the marketing savvy that grew from the free market? I think that messenger has always been a part of the message; perhaps we just learned to acknowledge/exploit that connection more than others?

11 William K. Wolfrum » Blog Archive » Oprah Winfrey needs to stop promoting pseudoscientific nonsense 09.25.07 at 12:27 pm

[...] “The Secret” is pseudoscientific nonsense goes without saying. At least it should. But with Oprah pushing it, [...]

12 bev 10.21.07 at 1:27 pm

Micheal wrote “you’ll never plough a feild by turning it over in your mind” true enough but I bet before you got to the feild you thought of it first, had a vision of the action each time, from the time you opened your eyes in the morning and THOUGHT of what you’d do that day and every thought that’s manifested precedes ACTION. Of course EVERYTHING starts with thought. And of course “The Secret” is quite oversimplified and lacks depth and of course is a marketed product, but the underlying idea that our thoughts and beliefs create reality is sound. Of course there are adverse life experiences that boggle the mind ie a 5yr old being molested by an adult; where was the child’s thought in that the child’s thought certainly didn’t attract the action but the molester’s did and maybe even the thought’s and fears of the parents and the child’s thought’s that direct his/her life as they grow up will make the difference in how well adjusted and successful they can be in spite of the awful experience.
Whether on an individual level or mass population level, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs create reality which is why it is so easy to manipulate our minds through the media,religion, and all levels of the so called education systems. This plays out throughout the world whether in affluent, materially successful countries or those plagued with poverty and disease( and no i’m not blaming victims). Remember now “3rd world” nations(ie. Africa,Asia, S. America) were once flourishing, autonomous king/queendoms and empires. What thoughts, beliefs and actions caused their fall. Wake up Sheeple it’s all a MIND game. while we debate over the “Secret” the GAME PLAYS ON.

13 M.T. 10.24.07 at 5:09 pm

Hi Bev, if you’re still around.

It took me a while to decide how to respond.

Are thoughts important? Yes. Does what we think about, and how we think impact our life? Yupp – in fact, the nifty neuro-science guys have pretty much proven that thought patterns can actually change the brain itself.

Do thoughts ‘create reality’? Only in the loosest sense.

Our thoughts can impact and even create our perceptions and experience of the physical world, and ur thoughts can impact how we interact with the physical world. But our thoughts do not create or change the physical world. That takes action.

Thoughts alone do not change the world, not even thoughts wrapped in psuedo-science and pretty packaging.

As for the “sheeple” comment… I do try to keep the wool out of my eyes ;)

14 bev 10.27.07 at 1:41 pm

Hi M.K.
I’m still around and I’m glad you’re keeping the wool out of your eyes.
And you’re absolutely right that nothing happens without action. If I may paraphrase myself, every thing manifested is a thought that precedes ACTION.
Our thoughts can and do change the physical world. For example 100+ years ago clean air and water were a given. Now we must travel far to find it. I live in NYC, collective thoughts and actions(careless chemical dumping,fossil fuel burning etc.) have instigated my personal thought and action to use a water filter. Even though “they” say NY has some of the “best” drinking water in the country, tests still show many adverse chemicals and bacteria present in the water and many people choose to use alternative sources for drinking water. This is just one of the myriad instances of how thoughts effect actions that create our reality. Simply, the action never happens w/o the thought.
Think about it.

15 bev 10.27.07 at 1:53 pm

Sorry M.T.
I addressed you as M.K., but U know who you are.

16 Care-i secretul “Secretului”? Şi, de ce atît de mulţi sînt atraşi de “Legea atracţiei”? « Gimnastică intelectuală pe chestiuni biblice 05.10.08 at 6:27 am

[...] (de aici, m-am “inspirat” cel mai mult în ce-am scris) [...]

17 ME 06.02.08 at 2:53 pm

You can not simply describe the whole film as ‘garbish’. It does have several cores of truth in it.

18 Tori Deaux 06.04.08 at 6:34 pm

@ME Ever been Dumpster Diving? There are sometimes pretty cool treasures to be found in garbage piles – but the piles themselves are still garbage, and the good stuff still needs the coffee grounds and banana peels scrapped off! ;)

19 Anonymous 07.09.08 at 4:54 pm

The Mother of All Get Rich Quick Schemes is to write a book about a Get Rich Scheme!

20 Narayanan PV 04.24.09 at 4:23 am

The Secret on its own cannot work for anyone. But people who buy books like Secret, in reality, are looking for tools and shortcuts which somehow will help them attain ‘desires’. These books also help to escape from the harsh realities of life. Self-help books sell because of our unlimited and often difficult wants. I have seen the same self-help books being read by an office secretary and CEO of a multinational company (7 Habits series, Paulo Coelho, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Life Matters….. and amongst others Secret). You’d imagine that the Secretary reading it to become a senior executive but what about the successful CEO. In fact, my highly successful insurance agent friend who is the topper in his company was also reading it and he recommended me the DVD. He is a mega success, actually speaking from where he started. And here’s an interesting fact. Since I know him for years, I know that he did not even know what was self-help in all these years while he was becoming successful. Recently, he noticed some client of his reading Secret and he went over bought the DVD and the book. But I also know that only a few months back he had bought a book on how to become successful in selling — imagine he has been a topper in his company consistently for many years. New desires which are difficult to fulfill? perhaps. I think people read self-help books and attend such seminars for a variety of complex reasons. But this is for sure and a no brainer — If you want something in life, you have to work for it. My insurance agent friend is on the field all the time. Where people generally say ‘thought’ driving (or ‘attracting’) anything, I’d replace the word thought with ‘desire’. When you have strong desires, you look for tools to attain them and self-help books seem to be one of them.