Wednesday, May 7, 2008

How of Happiness: Is "The Secret" Just a Giant Placebo Effect?

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I’ve been traveling so much lately that I’ve started to play a little game by guessing what reading material people tend to bring on airplanes. The most frequently sighted book? The Secret. No surprise there. Rhonda Byrne’s book, which followed a popular DVD, will be celebrating its one-and-a-half-year anniversary atop the bestseller lists on May 28. I’ve been told about it, gushingly, not only by my new agey crunchy granola friends (OK, I live in LA), but by my more ordinarily skeptical friends as well.

“OK,” they say, “We know that the law of attraction [which argues that you can manifest or attract whatever your heart desires, from Prada bags to husbands] sounds ridiculous. But it works! It has truly, sincerely, and genuinely made me happier.”

I am a psychological scientist who conducts randomized controlled experiments that test what strategies make people happier over the long term (and how and why). But I cannot argue with the claim that faithfully using the law of attraction has made particular individuals happy. Of course, such anecdotal evidence can be strongly biased. For example, people may try to convince themselves that something into which they have put a lot of effort is truly valuable, or they may selectively recall successes versus failures. However, my guess is that if we test The Secret’s recommendations in a randomized controlled experiment, it would likely be shown to “work.” Why? Because, as my new graduate student, Matthew Della Porta, announced to me the other day in an inspired understatement, “You know, The Secret is just a giant placebo effect.”

A placebo effect occurs when a pill, procedure, or behavior has the intended salutary outcome – for example, relief of headache or lifting of depression – simply because the person believes that it will have that outcome. The placebo effect is truly mind-over-body, or mind-over-mind, in action. The pill may be a sugar pill and the strategy may be completely worthless, but if you think that it’s going to work, it just might work.

Placebo effects aren’t trivial. A sugar pill or sham treatment (even sham surgery) can lead people to feel less anxious, to show reduced inflammation, to witness declines in blood pressure, and even to build muscle mass. In the case of psychological “sham” treatments, such as those described in Rhonda Byrne’s film and book, people may benefit and become genuinely happier for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are pursuing a significant, committed, and absorbing life goal (simply having such goals is associated with happiness) and the fact that they are engaged with the world and other people (social bonds are also associated with happiness). And the list goes on.

Here’s a study that I plan to do with my students. Half the participants will be asked to practice faithfully the law of attraction. The other half will be asked to practice an alternate “law of attraction” that we have randomly scrambled and reversed beyond recognition. All will be given a reasonable-sounding rationale for why their assigned exercises should work. Our prediction is that both groups of participants will become happier over time and more successful in obtaining what they want – simply because they believe in what they’re doing, because they expect to succeed, because they are putting effort into the strategy, and because they are pursuing it in an engaged and committed fashion.

I can’t wait to learn what we find from this study. Of course, scientific experiments take much longer to conduct than the time it takes to read a book. By the time the results are in – and if they show that the law of attraction isn’t any more effective than a nonsense collection of exercises – maybe The Secret mania will have blown over and no one will care.

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