A common claim in business and self-help seminars is that optimists are luckier.

  • Is it true that optimism leads to greater success in life?
  • If so, what part of the brain support this so called "higher self"? Basal ganglia?
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    $\begingroup$ Is this "law of attraction" the one you're referring to? What "higher self" are you asking about? I don't want to overwhelm you with clarification requests, but I even think "luckier" may need some further definition if this is to be an evidence-based discussion. $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Jan 22 '14 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Actually the idea of subconcious mind, or higher self is from book "The Secret". Some says it's God. I see it said again and again. In books like road less traveled. $\endgroup$ – user4951 Jan 22 '14 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ Any particular reason you've included the stress tag? $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Jan 22 '14 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ Because I am always a stressful person. $\endgroup$ – user4951 Jan 22 '14 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ @jim-thio: the higher self is not a self help gimmic. Read up on Buddhism and Jesus. and LOL on the "Because I am always a stressful person." $\endgroup$ – Greg McNulty Jan 23 '14 at 2:58

I'm giving this as an answer, because it is too long for a comment:

The Law of Attraction and Positive Thinking are not the same and should not be confused as they are in the question.

The Law of Attraction – as it was developed in the New Thought Movement, taken up and spread in the New Age community by Esther and Jerry Hicks, and made popular by the movie The Secret –, states that if you achieve the state of being that corresponds to being rich (or having a partner or whatever you desire that you do not have in real life), the universe will match reality with your state of being and provide the wealth (or partner or whatever you wish). The claim is that if you truly achieve the state of being of having a pocket full of money, you will have a pocket full of money.

Positive Thinking states that if you are in an optimistic frame of mind, you will overcome inner obstacles (such as limiting beliefs that keep you from trying what you actually could achieve) and recieve more support from other people (because they are not longer put off by your grumpiness).

The Law of Attraction is magical thinking and opposed to the currently dominant scientific worldview as it contradicts physical laws, while Positive Thinking is supported by it and has been generally confirmed by psychological research.

  • $\begingroup$ thank you for giving background on what the law of attraction is $\endgroup$ – user3832 Jan 24 '14 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ "The claim is that if you truly achieve the state of being of having a pocket full of money..." xD I think you nailed it! For the record though, I think the conflation of "New Thought" (ha!) and optimism is partly by @JeromyAnglim's design; his edit emphasized optimism somewhat more. Anyway, the "law of attraction" isn't purely magical (just mostly): check out the question I linked over at skeptics.SE. "Autosuggestion" is an interesting way of rephrasing it very mundanely, and it actually seems to be counterproductive! Optimism certainly has its share of empirically confirmed drawbacks too BTW $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Jan 24 '14 at 21:30

Ahh yes, The Secret. I'd recommend starting with Wikipedia for a critical view of the "law of attraction" and the book as a whole. The former page has some particularly good excerpts to offer (emphasis added; hyperlinks not preserved, though I'd appreciate help editing them back in):

Skeptical Inquirer magazine criticized the lack of falsifiability and testability of these claims.$^{[6]}$ Critics have asserted that the evidence provided is usually anecdotal and that, because of the self-selecting nature of the positive reports, as well as the subjective nature of any results, these reports are susceptible to confirmation bias and selection bias.$^{[18]}$ Physicist Ali Alousi, for instance, criticized it as unmeasurable and questioned the likelihood that thoughts can affect anything outside the head.$^{[1]}$

The Law of Attraction has been popularized in recent years by books and films such as The Secret...Writing for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Mary Carmichael and Ben Radford wrote that "neither the film nor the book has any basis in scientific reality", and that its premise contains "an ugly flipside: if you have an accident or disease, it's your fault." $^{[6]}$

Others have questioned the references to modern scientific theory, and have maintained, for example, that the law of attraction misrepresents the electrical activity of brainwaves. $^{[20]}$ Victor Stenger and Leon Lederman are critical of attempts to use quantum mysticism to bridge any unexplained or seemingly implausible effects, believing these to be traits of modern pseudoscience.

To sum that up, the "law of attraction" hardly has a physical basis, and it hardly could as it's been defined, given the joint lack of measurability, testability, and falsifiability. If it has a psychological basis that might explain why you've observed multiple independent authors advocating vaguely the same idea, that basis is confirmation bias or selection bias, and the "law" is an illusory result of these biases. That is, it is not at all a law in the usual, scientific sense of a time-tested theory that explains a copious range of empirically verifiable facts; it is almost the furthest thing from a law in this sense. Advocates of the idea often borrow language from popularly recognized but poorly understood (by non-physicists) physical concepts like quantum mechanics and electromagnetism, but repurpose them to communicate metaphysical claims without clarifying whether their use is intended (a) as analogy, or (b) as literal claims for the physical mechanisms by which the metaphysical claims are proposed to operate.

I believe Alousi's criticism in the above quote was a response to the latter interpretation: I think he's arguing that thoughts are unlikely to directly cause physical effects outside the brain, presumably excluding effects on the rest of one's own body, and excluding effects that are mediated by behavior. No known process exists to affect "luck" or the realization of desires through thought alone, so it's unlikely we've overlooked some secret mechanism through which such an effect could operate. Conversely, it seems plenty likely that, for instance, thinking I deserve a cookie would result in me getting a cookie, if I don't exclude all the ordinary processes that mediate this effect (e.g., getting up, opening the cookie jar, stuffing my face)...but this is no secret.

(Full disclosure: I haven't read The Secret...and given my familiarity with its detractors, I'm not likely to.)

[Edit]: For another, broader response to the related concept of "autosuggestion," check out this question on skeptics.SE. @Articuno's answer cites some interesting studies that seem to have identified counterproductive effects of focusing on outcome goals (instead of process goals; Pham & Taylor, 1999) and positive fantasies of success before it is actually attained (Oettingen, 1996)! Maybe this is the real, dirty secret about The Secret that's most worth knowing.


Oettingen, G. (1996). Positive fantasy and motivation. In P. M. Gollwitzer & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior, pp. 236–259. New York: Guilford Press.

Pham, L. B., & Taylor, S. E. (1999). From thought to action: Effects of process-versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(2), 250–260.

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    $\begingroup$ While imagining cookies won't give you cookies, it may make you more aware when there are cookies around. Anything that may significantly affect the outcome will be more clearly seen rather than ignored. $\endgroup$ – user4951 Jan 22 '14 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ If we could all agree that the "law of attraction" amounts to no more and no less than, "Keep your eye on the prize," or some such aphorism, I don't think The Secret would attract anywhere near as much attention as it does (critical and otherwise)...though it might deserve more! $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Jan 22 '14 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ @GregMcNulty it has absolutely nothing to do with quantum mechanics, don't subscribe to such hokum. See the last two sections of my answer here since they apply to pretty much every use of the word quantum near anything to do with humans. $\endgroup$ – Artem Kaznatcheev Jan 23 '14 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ @NickStauner I am not opposed to your use of wikipedia in this answer! Especially with the bolding and expansion in the rest of the answer, it shows that you are taking time to provide a good answer. However, I would have voted to close this question as answerable by wikipedia and being better fit for skeptics than here. $\endgroup$ – Artem Kaznatcheev Jan 23 '14 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure you do! ;) Skepticism doesn't dictate ignoring experiences at all, certainly not when they defy a theory. Being skeptical means not saying "I know for sure" about any theory at least until some serious effort has been invested in trying and failing to prove the theory wrong. It means doubting scientific findings too, especially if counterevidence exists. Science certainly has more left to explore than it has so far, as does our collective awareness, but where this is especially true, one must remain especially skeptical of ideas that propose to fill those gaps prematurely! $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Jan 24 '14 at 3:36

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