The Powerful Bullshit Of “The Secret”

While sipping lattes in a cozy café in Cambridge Lonnie, a skilled yoga teacher, confided in me, “Mark, I don’t know what to do. I’ve been struggling for fifteen years to make a living as a yoga teacher and things just aren’t getting better. I’ve been following the Law of Attraction in “The Secret”, doing all my affirmations and visualizations regularly, but nothing has changed. What am I doing wrong?”

I asked her what seemed like an obvious question, “What have you been doing to put your dreams into action?” She looked at me with blank, wide eyes, like I had asked her a question in gibberish. “…umnn… what do you mean?” “Well, you have dreams and a vision for how you want your life to be. What are you doing to make that happen?”

Still the blank stare.

She had fallen prey to the bullshit of “The Secret.”

The Bullshit

If you buy into “The Secret” you’ll believe that all you have to do to receive anything you want in life is practice the Law of Attraction: think positive thoughts; be a positive person; practice affirmations and visualize things coming to you.

As if by magic checks will start showing up in your mailbox, an attractive partner will appear out of nowhere and suddenly you’ll live in a mansion with a flashy car parked in the driveway. Plus you’ll have love everlasting and spiritual enlightenment.

Unfortunately this is not how the universe works.

The Science of Success

According to scientific research, many of the claims of “The Secret” are almost right, but unfortunately the authors give advice that will actually be detrimental. With a few tweaks, you can tap into the power of the ideas behind the secret in ways that will actually help you get what you want.

Doing it this way will be more work, but on the other hand, you’ll actually move towards getting what you want instead of sitting on a couch alone in the dark wondering why the universe isn’t providing you with what you visualized.

Sow Subconscious Seeds In Your Brain

Many studies have shown that we can sow subconscious seeds in our brains that will later influence our perceptions and behaviors. For example, people exposed subliminally to the word “rude” are more likely to be rude to other people than people who are subliminally exposed to the word “polite”. This process is called “priming” the brain, and the results of priming can be remarkable.

Researchers at Yale University have shown that subtly activating the professor stereotype causes people to score higher on a knowledge quiz, and priming the elderly stereotype makes college students not only walk more slowly but have poorer memory as well.

This research validates the idea that affirmations, visualization and hypnosis can be powerful tools to set our brain up to act in the ways we want. Indeed, research has shown that effectively priming your brain with a particular goal can increase your likelihood of noticing opportunities to achieve that goal by 50%.

As an example, think of the last time you bought a car. You put a lot of thought into your buying decision, gradually narrowing down your choices to focus on one particular make and model, and eventually committing to a specific color and year. Through this process you unconsciously primed your brain to be on the lookout for that particular car. What happened as soon as you drove out of the dealership in your new car? You suddenly started seeing the exact same car that you just bought everywhere! That’s the power of priming in action.

Now, here’s an essential factor, and the part that “The Secret” misses: Your brain will take what you prime it to do quite literally, so according to the old Aladdin parable, “Be careful what you wish for.”

In a study conducted by Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor at the University of California, a group of students was asked to spend a few moments each day visualizing themselves getting a high grade on an important midterm exam that would take place in a few days’ time. They were asked to form a clear image in their mind’s eye and imagine how great it would feel to make a high grade. The study also involved a control group of students, who went about their business as usual and were not asked to visualize doing especially well on the exams. The experimenters asked the students in both groups to make a note of the number of hours they studied each day, and monitored their final grades. Even though the priming lasted only a few
minutes, it had a significant impact on the students’ behavior, causing them to study less and make lower grades on the exam. The exercise may have made them feel better about themselves, but it did not help them achieve their goals.

If you imagine, as “The Secret” suggests, things magically coming your way without you having to do anything, then guess what that is going to prime your brain to do. You’re going to sit home doing absolutely nothing, expecting things to be delivered to you without work.

This explains why, amongst people with a decent education and opportunities in life, some of the least successful people I’ve met are those who spend their lives focused on the Law of Attraction. They’re spending time priming their brains to sit on their butts doing nothing to make those dreams happen. And that’s exactly what they end up doing – nothing.

The Lesson: Use priming (visualization, affirmations and hypnosis) to focus your brain on achieving what you want, but make sure that your visualizations include taking an active role in creating the success you want.

Be Positive

One of the things that “The Secret” gets exactly right is that it’s important to be positive and think positive.

Researchers at Arizona State University asked some volunteers to think about someone they loved and spend twenty minutes writing about why this person meant so much to them. As a control, another group was asked to write about something that had happened to them during the past week. Each group repeated the writing exercise three times over the course of five weeks. This simple procedure had a dramatic effect, with those who spent just a few minutes engaged in affectionate writing showing a marked increase in happiness, a reduction in stress, and even a significant decrease in their cholesterol levels.

If you state your goals in the negative, for example “I want to get out of debt,” “I don’t want to be lonely,” or “I don’t want to be stressed.” then the words, images and feelings you are going to prime your brain with are “debt,” “lonely” and “stressed” and your brain is going to find ways to give you even more of those unwanted things.

In one experiment a group of dieters was told not to think about eating chocolate, while the control group was given no special instructions. The dieters tracked their food consumption and at the end of the study the results were clear: asking dieters not to think about eating chocolate causes them to consume more of it.

The Lesson: State your goals and visualizations in the positive. Rather than focusing on eliminating what you don’t want, focus on creating what you do want.

Visualize Both Results and Actions

The biggie that will make your life worse if you believe it is that affirmations alone will get you more of what you want. They won’t. In fact, affirmations alone will reduce your success.

Researchers at the University of Florida had one group of participants visualize themselves as “A” students and another group was asked to spend a few moments each day imagining the process of revision by visualizing when, where, and how they intended to study. A third group of students acted as a control, doing no exercises at all. Compared to the control group and to the group who were visualizing themselves as “A” students, the students who imagined themselves going through the process of studying spent significantly more time revising and eventually earned higher exam grades. According to the researchers, visualizing the process of study proved especially effective at reducing exam-related anxiety and helped students better plan and manage their workload. Subsequent research has shown that the same effect occurs in several different areas, with, for example, tennis players and golfers benefiting far more from imagining themselves training than winning.

The Lesson: It takes hard work to create success. In addition to visualizing what you want, also visualize the process of what it’s going to take to get you there. Rather than hoping the Universe or other people will give you want you need, focus on what you can do to manifest the results you want.

Eliminate Self Sabotage

Research shows that we can only be hypnotized to do things that are consistent with our own self-identity and beliefs. The same goes for affirmations and other forms of priming.

If you believe you’re a loser, then no amount of positive self-talk is going to make you feel successful. If deep down inside you feel like you don’t deserve a promotion, then your brain is going to self-sabotage to prevent you from achieving that goal. If you learned from your family upbringing that you’re not worthy of being loved, then no amount of visualization, no number of dates and romantic encounters are actually going to give you the experience of being loved.

From my work with thousands of clients, I’ve discovered one surprising fact: most people have more issues with success than they do with failure. We’re comfortable with the failures we already have in as much as they’re consistent with our sense of ourselves and our history. Great new successes, in any area of life, would radically challenge our beliefs about ourselves in ways that are usually uncomfortable and often unacceptable at a subconscious level.

If you are already doing everything recommended in this article, and you’re still not creating the kind of life you want, then the chances are that some unconscious part of you is sabotaging your success. In that case, you’ll want to make deeper changes at a subconscious level to line up your subconscious mind with your conscious desires. For that purpose, I’d recommend The Body-Psyche Program. The program has proven to be successful re-designing your sub-conscious self-beliefs about worthiness, receiving and abundance from the ground up.

The Lesson: You can only achieve as much as your subconscious self-identity believes you deserve. Often you’ll need to make deeper changes to align your identity with your conscious goals before you can succeed.

The Real Secret To Creating Abundance

In conclusion, if you want abundance in your life, forget The Law of Attraction. Instead, focus on the Law of Manifestation. Visualize what you want and also visualize the concrete steps you will take to make those things real. It all starts in your mind, but in the end your actions in the real world are what make the difference.

Further Reading

If you’re a nerd and want to track down the research quoted in this article, you can find most of it in 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman and The New Unconscious, Oxford Series in Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience, edited by Ran R. Hassin. “59 Seconds” is an easy read and gives great science-based tips on personal development. “The New Unconscious” is a heavy-duty collection of articles on research in neuroscience, neuropsychology and neurophysiology. It’s fascinating stuff, but it’s designed for the neuroscience academic audience.

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  1. Mark O'Brien says

    Excellent article! I remember reading ‘The Secret’ years ago. Amazing that the book can actually create the opposite of what one wants in life!
    Jeez. I’ve been a fan of Dr. Wayne Dyer for a while now and have read several of his books. Even he has evolved his ideas of abundance and success over the years. He speaks a lot of ‘aligning with Source’ now by being more like Source itself by being more self-loving, compassionate etc. rather than simply asking for what one wants using the power of
    attraction alone. You’re right. Success is hard work and its not just sitting around, thinking sweet little thoughts and expecting it all to just
    come to you.

  2. Max says

    I liked this. I like it when the New Age gets called on its bullshit. I also like when an article calls me on MY bullshit. When an article does it, I can more effectively hide how full of shit I am. That’s part of my bullshit.


    One read I had on the thoughts presented here: priming helps explain why making political change is so arduous. It seems to me that the easiest solutions to political struggle are violent and/or negatively oriented: war-making, conquest, political gamesmanship, ‘free-market’ manipulation, strong-arm tactics, lying to get what you want while avoiding responsibility for consequences; all require the least amount of change to the status quo and have the most built in social support. Those conditions are familiar. A common response between a political main streamer and someone on the fringe goes like this: “well yeah, in an ideal world there would be enough and we would treat each other well, but that’s not human nature.” As if humans didn’t evolve in part through self-awareness, group reliance and problem solving! So give cynical political problem-solving a couple hundred years and exponential technological expansion (which includes the deployment of weaponized theoretical, non-material, and meta-technologies), and you get a massive, unself-aware [sic] organism hastily compounding it’s multitudes of failure to meet it’s own needs: which seem to be it’s own end.

    It also supports the idea that any theoretical politics needs to have a plan of action to be other than support of the status quo.

  3. Dawn says

    Thank you for this! Thank you for calling out the bullshit, making concrete suggestions for what might prove far more effective, and for the citations.

  4. says

    I agree with much of the content, but don’t feel this writer clearly understands the secret. Although I am not a fan of “The Secret”, I do believe in the law of attraction which is not about positive thinking. It is about being mindful of your vibration, as it will attract a like vibration. Positive, negative, neutral. It’s not your thought or action, it is the intensity of the intention/vibration through which all things occur. That is what the LoA is about. Whether you believe it or not, it needs to be represented accurately, in my humble opinion.

    • Mark O'Brien says

      Maybe it’s splitting hairs with the punctuation but Mark does state “If you buy into “The Secret” you’ll believe that all you have to do to receive anything you want in life is practice the Law of Attraction: think positive thoughts; be a positive person; practice affirmations and visualize things coming to you.”
      So I think get gets that practicing the LOT is the basis for The Secret AND encompasses all the other attributes like positive thinking, affirmations etc.

  5. says

    I think the whole Intention/Manifestation model is a little off. What’s the point in intending for something? Because I think it will make me happy? Why not just intend for happiness? Why not just focus on being happy?

    If I want to feel abundance, instead of intending for more money, why don’t I just focus on all the amazing abundance I’m already experiencing? Besides making me feel wealthier instantly, it will raise my vibration to that of one who experiences abundance and will allow more abundant experiences into my life. I don’t need to be specific, I just clean out my resistance to the natural flow of infinite abundance.

    • says

      Hi Trevor. I partially agree with you, but there is a catch.

      If we have no internal resistance the abundant flow, then yes, just imagining what you want helps create the experience. However, almost everyone does have internal resistance, and just trying to be positive on top of that negativity becomes another form of New Age denial. I wrote more about that in “The Hero’s Journey – Embracing The Dark Side” at

      • says

        Hey Mark, thanks for the quick reply (found your site through the DC). My point was not to try to add a layer of positivity onto a ball of negativity (which is why I think affirmations are usually a waste of time), but rather to focus on cleaning out all negativity.

        For example, when I notice myself thinking a scarcity thought like, “My roommates always eat my bananas and never buy any themselves,” I quickly counter that thought with asking for forgiveness and giving love and gratitude for the thought and the experience. I then focus on being grateful for the opportunity to be able to give and make other people’s lives more abundant.

        I don’t believe this is “just trying to be positive,” but really cuts down to the roots of negativity. Whenever I go through this process I feel my vibration raise instantly. What do you think?

  6. Bruce Pulford says

    What I’ve read has been very helpfull .People need to understand that using practical methods to get want they want out of life can change.Without real understanding they can get taken anywhere.Desperate people do desperate things.With some of the circumstances that they may be in.To often and to late because of there desperation.There is two sides to a coin but the coin will still equal it’s worth.So in understanding usefulness we can move forward.Enjoyed reading your artical.