What's Wrong with The Secret

The Secret teaches that victims are always to blame, and that anyone can have anything simply by wishing.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Fads, Paranormal

Skeptoid #96
April 15, 2008
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Prepare to have everything you've ever wanted, simply by thinking happy thoughts about it; and be careful of negative scary thoughts which might cause those things to happen to you to too. Little did you know that, just like in the original Star Trek episode Shore Leave, whatever you think of — either good or bad — will actually happen! This is the premise of Rhonda Byrne's 2006 book and movie, both titled The Secret.

Rhonda Byrne is an Australian television producer and author. Her book and movie propose that many of the most successful people throughout history have known a "secret" — a secret closely guarded in the marketing materials for the book and movie. The "secret" turns out to be nothing more than the old motivational speaker's standby, that positive thinking leads to positive results. But she took the idea a step further. The Secret claims that you can actually cause events to happen by wishing for them hard enough, literally like winning the lottery or recovering from terminal illness. Similarly, a focus on fears or negative ideas will cause those things to appear or happen as well. The Secret calls this the "Law of Attraction". The Secret further makes the completely unfounded claim that many great people knew and relied upon this wisdom, and taught it to others as "secret teachers". "Secret teachers" included Buddha, Aristotle, Plato, Sir Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Carl Jung, Henry Ford, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Campbell, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Beethoven. This claim is just a made-up lie: Most of these people lived before the "Law of Attraction" was invented, and there's no evidence that any of them ever heard of it.

As of today, a year and a half after its release, The Secret remains #26 of Amazon's list of best selling books, better than any Harry Potter book. It has over 2,000 customer reviews. Half of them are 5 star, and a quarter of them are 1 star. This is the sign of a polarizing book. Most people either love it or find it to be utter nonsense. In the case of The Secret, most people love it. Thanks in large part to promotion by Oprah Winfrey, The Secret sold 2 million DVD's in its first year and 4 million books in its first six months.

Many of the people appearing in the movie version of The Secret are motivational speakers who spout the same old "If you can dream it, you can do it" nonsense that Amway salesmen have been chanting for decades. In essence, part of what Rhonda Byrne has done has been to simply repackage Motivational Speaking 101 inside the wrapper of a century-old philosophical construct, which we'll look at in closer detail in a moment.

As you've probably heard, The Secret has been roundly criticized from all quarters. The most common criticism is of The Secret's assertion that victims are always to blame for whatever happens to them. Whether it's a rape victim, a tsunami victim, or a heart attack victim, The Secret teaches that they brought it upon themselves with their own negative thoughts. This idea is, of course, profoundly offensive in many ways. Doctors attack The Secret for teaching that positive thinking is an adequate substitute for medical care in cases of serious illness: Wish for it hard enough, and your cancer tumors will melt away. Religious leaders criticize The Secret for its ethical claims that victims are always to blame, and for promoting the attitude that anyone can be just like a god by wishing hard enough. Many financial critics and advisors have pointed out the dangers of yet another baseless get-rich-quick scheme. The list of critics of The Secret goes on and on, as tends to happen to any mega-successful franchise.

So the question people ask me is "What do I think of The Secret?" This is really asking what is the best way to use critical thinking to analyze the validity of The Secret's claims. To do this, we first ignore everything that people say about it. We ignore the critics, we ignore the supporters and testimonial writers, and we ignore the Amazon reviews. Let's examine the claims themselves, on their own merits, and let's start by tracking down precisely where this "secret" of the "Law of Attraction" comes from.

The concept now called the "Law of Attraction" was described by James Allen in his 1902 book As a Man Thinketh. He wrote: "The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors, that which it loves, and also that which it fears. It reaches the height of its cherished aspirations. It falls to the level of its unchastened desires — and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own." Allen was saying that circumstances — things that happen to us — will make our desires and our fears both come to pass. Allen said that our desires and fears would "attract" those things. If Winston Churchill was indeed a "Secret teacher", we might conclude that he desired gin and feared the fire bombing of London, because both of those things certainly found their way to him. Allen wrote his book during a philosophical period called the New Thought movement, which applied metaphysical concepts to modern life. This movement was akin to what we describe as New Age today: Same ideas, slightly different buzzwords, a century apart.

Other authors followed suit based on James Allen's success, and the term "Law of Attraction" came into being among some of these followup books. A hundred years later, Rhonda Byrne read Wallace Wattles' 1910 New Thought book The Science of Getting Rich, and cleverly used it as an "ancient wisdom" foundation for contemporary motivational self-help ideas. The general public tends to love anything that can be attributed to ancient wisdom, so it's no accident that Rhonda made reference to Buddha, Aristotle, and Plato.

New Thought's "blame the victim" concept is one that's attractive to most people at a deep level. When we see someone else victimized, we take a sort of smug pride in that we did not let that happen to ourselves because we did not think whatever ugly thoughts that person must have. The Secret works! The Secret appeals to that selfish ego that's somewhere inside of all of us. This is ugly and embarrassing, but it's part of why The Secret is psychologically appealing.

Put all of these together, and The Secret is a marketing 1-2-3 punch:

  1. It's based on ancient wisdom, which is always popular
  2. It sells the same motivational self-help pitches that are always popular
  3. It teaches that you're already a winner because you didn't fail like those people who died in New Orleans.

Some claims in The Secret are simply factually wrong, and so fall apart under their own weight when scrutinized. Specifically, The Secret claims that quantum physics supports and explains the "Law of Attraction". At its most superficial, this claim sounds reasonable to the uncritical layperson because attraction sounds like magnetism which is a real scientific thing, and any mention of the term quantum physics sounds scientific enough to be acceptable at face value. Who's qualified to argue against quantum physics? The Secret says that thoughts have energy, and similar energies are attracted to each other. That's their quantum physics.

In fact, scientifically speaking, that statement is completely meaningless at every level, and at no level does it have anything whatsoever to do with real quantum physics. In fact, the closest analog I can find in science is that like charges repel one another, they do not attract. But we're talking about "thought energy" here, so we've already left the realm of real science and are in the world of metaphysics. Since metaphysics is a philosophical invention with no connection to real physics, either quantum or classical, you can pretty much say whatever you want and there is no scientific way to respond to it. Thus, The Secret's claim to have roots in quantum physics is childish and meaningless, yet it succeeds because it appeals to the uncritical layperson's tendency to accept scientific sounding terminology at face value. Check out Rhonda Byrne's background in quantum physics. You'll find that she took the same university courses that your cat did.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Now, it's probably important to point out that there's nothing wrong with positive thinking, and usually nothing terribly helpful about negative thinking. People with positive attitudes tend to be happier and more personable. People with negative attitudes tend to bring other people down or get blown off. In this sense, having a positive attitude is good, but nobody needs to be told that and you certainly don't need a self-help book and movie to make the point. The important line to be aware of is the division between fantasy and reality. People who buy into The Secret are not generally healthier or wealthier than anybody else, in fact they're poorer by the price of a movie ticket or a book. So go forth and be a positive person, but of claims that thought materializes into physical possessions or actions, you have good reason to be skeptical.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Allen, James. As a Man Thinketh. Radford: Wilder Publications, 2007. 14.

Amazon. "The Secret." Amazon.com. Amazon.com, Inc, 11 Apr. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2008. <http://web.archive.org/web/20080411053722/http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Rhonda-Byrne/dp/1582701709>

Byrne, Rhonda. The Secret. New York: Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2006. 21,62,156.

Canfield, Jack. "Rhonda Byrne." Time.com:The Time 100. Time Magazine, 3 May 2007. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/time100/article/0,28804,1595326_1615737_1615871,00.html>

Ford, Kenneth William. The quantum world: quantum physics for everyone. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Wattles, Wallace D. Science of Getting Rich. Holyoke: E. Towne, 1910.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "What's Wrong with The Secret." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 15 Apr 2008. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4096>


10 most recent comments | Show all 153 comments

Not to pile on but if the Secret worked in the least, its corollary of selling Amway products would be a great way to make money rather than a great way to lose it. Anyone with a normal to high level of self-confidence can have all the claimed benefits of the Secret without ever reading the book, but it works better if you have business sense and determination as well as opportunities to explore. Look, for example, at Brian Dunning, who has built a very nice podcast and blog virtually from the ground up. I bet you he spent much more time planning, researching and plain old working than he did sitting around wishing or "visioning" success.

If wishes were fishes, the sea would be full!

Bill Kowalski, Webster Groves, Missouri USA
March 5, 2014 12:39pm

What the book omits is ethics, in my opinion, since what feels like a "positive" thought to us is not necessarily always an ethical thought. If I want to become a multi-millionaire by selling Amway, is that a positive thought? Yes, according to The Secret, since I exhibit "self-belief" and I feel happy when I visualize myself as a millionaire. But is becoming a millionaire by selling Amway ethical? Additionally, what if I had a desire to sleep with my best friend's husband. If I think positively about this and visualize the hot sex I will soon have with him, again, this is indeed a "positive" thought, but, again is it "ethical"?

Kim, Australia
April 19, 2014 11:42am

I discovered the secret around 5 years ago and I've been singing its praises ever since. Simply because it has helped me to elevate my life. It is mainly about self confidence and happiness within as a pose to wealth for me. wealth will come with consistency and hard work. I am a much better person today because I found the knowledge of the law of attraction. for more books about self development and law of attraction check the link below. I found these extremely helpful also

Rayon, london
August 28, 2014 7:45am

I'm writing today at many blogs to let you know about something really wrong with Rhonda Byrne. Two years ago I did an Android app entitled "The Secret Unofficial App" and published in some places, except on Google Play because copyright. My app was free, its functionality was very similar to "The secret Gadget for Windows", showing the Secret Daily Messages except that I added an "Oracle mode", so that a random message could be showed for you. "Someone??" reported me, not only my app, and my app was removed from the lists. I couldn't believe, and I still can't. I know they sell their apps, but I was very clear about the title "Unofficial app". It was hard for me to take it at that time, I could not buy the app because I was unabled to get a credit card and I thought other peoples could be in my situation. Well, really, for me The Secret is a lie, they don't do what they say. Oh, she wants to bring joy to billions, right? So, maybe Rhonda can re-think about colaboration and begin to act as the nature does. Maybe this way, she may be sucessfull.

Sérgio Zucchi, São Paulo / Brazil
October 27, 2014 5:17pm

I have seen the movie several times and have the book. I side with those that say do not take this literally, I say catch the drift.

The drift, if I am positive and happy all the time, people see that and it makes it easy for them to be happy and positive as well. So it is easy to meet new people and with meeting new people, there are always plenty of different opportunities.

If you focus on something, people around you tend to know it. This is attractive to them and are likely to want to be near you rather than a sad depressed person. Focusing also will lead you there.

You want a new car, focus and think positive, next thing you know a friend of a friend knows a car dealer and gives you a great deal, even though you could not have afforded it otherwise.

Nothing magically appears, but through thoughts lead you to actions, which can lead you to what you want. Because the opportunity is now there, made by being positive and happy. Positive + Happy = Gratitude.

Murr777, Ottawa, Canada
October 29, 2014 6:11am

I think the secret, in this kind of interpretation, is a superstition.
Although there is something like this in some semitic religions(specially in ISLAM), looks like it refers to something about human soul and metaphysical beings which are as mediators of Creator's grace!
anyway two thing is obvious for me: first; although we must refrain radical methods of lifestyle in this extend, good thinks make your life better. second; this so-called scientific interpretation of Secret theory is wrong.
good wishes!

muhammad, Shiraz/Iran
December 19, 2014 7:44am

Quite frankly, the concept of the so-called "Law of Attraction" makes me sick to my stomach because it is a very cruel taunt to anyone who has ever been victimized and ESPECIALLY anyone who continues to be victimized on a daily basis by very real prejudice or a lingering medical condition. Do black people "attract" racism and police brutality because they were sending out "black" vibes? Do children "attract" pedophiles because they were acting "too cute"? Do autistic people "attract" abusive bullies by stimming in public? Did millions of Japanese people "attract" the tsunami, earthquake, and the second-worst nuclear disaster in history because they were collectively thinking the "wrong" thoughts? (I personally know someone who actually insists that this is true!) The so-called "Law of Attraction" not only appeals to the "it's better if it happens to them than me" mentality but also appeals to the equally selfish desire to believe that we live in a just world where victims must be bringing everything upon themselves and no bad things ever happen to innocent people. When it comes to very real victims, we have to get our heads out of our asses and stop living in a fantasy world where the perpetrators are absolved of all responsibility or some mystical force is invoked to explain natural disasters.

John, Canada
June 26, 2015 6:46pm

"......When it comes to very real victims, we have to get our heads out of our asses and stop living in a fantasy world where the perpetrators are absolved of all responsibility....."
- John, Canada

"We must reject the idea that every time a law's broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions."
- Ronald Reagan

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
July 4, 2015 7:32pm

I like some aspects of this so-called "Law of Attraction" which is really another way of packaging positive thinking ideas already propagated, like this blog says.

I have "the Secret" daily teachings which I still sometimes read. Some of the ideas sit well with me but often I'm dubious and have to edit the language as I read it to capture what I think Byrne is getting at but presents in a fanatical, thoughtless way.

I came across one page recently that said to dismiss all negative thoughts as being untrue. I found this particularly disturbing as what makes a "negative" thought is entirely subjective. Also "negative" thoughts may be cautionary thoughts experienced as unpleasant.

I believe Oprah philosophy and "the Secret" along with similar ideas that became increasingly popular over the several years leading up to the 2009 Global Financial Crisis were partly to blame as people recklessly took out mortgages to fund their "dream lifes" they believed they were so entitled to "live right now in the present!".

Rhonda Byrne and so many of these baby boomer "spiritual" crusaders just take hold of certain angles of Eastern thought then promote and exaggerate them. But they leave out the more sober aspects of the same philosophies that lead to humility and self-control that balances the pursuit of greed and personal indulgence that "the Secret" encourages.

David, Perth, Australia
July 20, 2015 1:56am

People take this book really seriously, to the extent where they compare it to science books. All I can say is that self-motivation is a powerful tool. Some people know how to self-motivate themselves, and a lot of others don't. When I watched the movie for the first time I was very skeptical. Then I read the book, I was still skeptical. But then I realized, it is for light reading - it is not a philosophical work of literature and you can't put it on the same level with those. I read it at my leisure, to give me a boost from time to time, I don't make it my mantra. We all have bad days, so I say when you do have one, pick up this book (or any other motivational book) to get you through the day. To me that was the intent of the writer. As for her making money off of it, come on, which other large enterprise that hit big doesn't exploit the opportunity? Disney (and this is supposed to be for the kids, just look at how much the amusement park tickets cost nowadays), the entertainment industry altogether, even PBS, selling books for three times more that what they're worth (hopefully for a good cause), pharmaceuticals, and on and on.

Sophie, Glendale
August 3, 2015 10:39am

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