The immensely popular book "The Secret" and its sequel "The Power" explicate the "law of attraction," which states that whatever you experience in life is a direct result of your thoughts. (A previous mindblog post on "The Secret" has received 31 comments.) Two psychology professors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, suggest that this basic idea, which has been around for millennia:
...might best be understood as an advanced meme — a sort of intellectual virus — whose structure has evolved throughout history to optimally exploit a suite of weaknesses in the design of the human mind.They then list several of the ploys or cognitive tricks used by author Rhonda Byrne, which include
-using what psychologists call “social proof.” People like to do things other people are doing because it seems to prove the value of their own actions. That is why QVC displays a running count of how many viewers have bought each item for sale, and why advice seems more credible if it appears to come from many different people rather than one…
-quoting sages like Thoreau, Gandhi and St. Augustine. This ploy, an example of a related logical fallacy called the argument from authority, taps our intuitive beliefs so forcefully that we psychology professors spend time training our introductory students to actively resist it.
-activating what might be called the illusion of potential, our readiness to believe that we have a vast reservoir of untapped abilities just waiting to be released. This illusion helps explain the popularity of products like “Baby Mozart” and video games that “train your brain” and entertain you at the same time. Unfortunately, rigorous empirical studies have repeatedly shown that none of these things bring about any meaningful improvement in intelligence.
-larding the text with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics. This last is a dead giveaway: whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called “psychology” and “neuroscience” to deal with those questions…pseudoscientific jargon serves mostly to establish an “illusion of knowledge,” as social scientists call our tendency to believe we understand something much better than we really do. In one clever experiment by the psychologist Rebecca Lawson, people who claimed to have a good understanding of how bicycles work (and who ride them every day) proved unable to draw the chain and pedals in the correct location.
-exploiting the human tendency to see things that happen in sequence — first the positive thinking, then the positive results — as forming a chain of cause and effect. This is even more likely to happen when all the stories we hear fit an expected pattern, a phenomenon psychologists call “illusory correlation.” If we hear only about the crazy coincidences (“I was thinking about getting the job offer, and right then I got the call!”), not the unconnected events (“I thought about getting the offer, but it never came” or “I wasn’t thinking about the offer, then I got it”) or even the nonevents (“I didn’t think I would get the offer, and indeed I didn’t get it”), then we get a distorted picture.
The powerful psychology behind these rhetorical tricks can distract readers from the larger illogic of Byrne’s books. What if a thousand people started sincerely visualizing winning the entire $200 million prize in this week’s Lotto? How would the universe sort out that mess? But it’s useless to argue with books like “The Secret” and “The Power.” They demonstrate an exquisite grasp of the reality of human nature. After all, the only other force that could explain how Rhonda Byrne put two books on top of the best-seller list is the law of attraction itself.