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Snake Oil: Rhonda Byrne Is Not The Prophet Muhammad or Jesus
There would be more than 19,000,000 and counting of those minutes given that is the number of copies of The Secret that have been sold to date. And that doesn't include collateral minutes born of purchases of her CDs, DVDs, wall calendars, key rings, and assorted other inspirational tchotchkes available for sale. Plus, her new book, The Power, is now number one on the New York Times advice bestseller list, so there are many more minutes ahead for many more suckers to be born.
After reading a recent New York Times essayabout these two books authored by Rhonda Byrne, I got to thinking about what makes her messages so compelling and why so many believe her ideas even though they seem so implausible as to be laughable.
Ms. Byrne's basic premise is that people can get what they want in life -- happiness, love, wealth -- simply by thinking positively about what they want. For example, if I want to be rich, I'm just going to think about getting money and the Law of Attraction dictates that wealth will come to me. Hey, I believe in the power of positive thinking, but only as a first step to motivate me to do the work necessary to achieve my goals. But maybe all that effort wasn't really necessary!
In my view, Ms. Byrne is the latest in a long history of American shakedown artists, from the snake-oil salesmen of the Old West to the grifters of the early 20th century to the motivational speakers of today. What do they have in common? All make impossible-to-fulfill promises and outlandish claims. They create a persuasive vocabulary around their ideas that resonate with people. These charlatans tell convincing narratives in support of their beliefs. And they use the authority of others (e.g., philosophers and scientists) to buttress their absurd assertions. But what I find most remarkable is the fact that so many people accept her blather as gospel.
I have to hand it to Ms. Byrne though; she has a masterful understanding of the human mind. She plays the human psyche, as the saying goes, like a drum. She exploits one of our greatest human weaknesses, namely, the belief that we can get something for nothing, that we can achieve our goals without any blood, sweat, or tears. What I find fascinating about this is that it flies in the face of reality for about 99.99% of the people on Earth (the other .01% are either lucky or born rich). Sure, there are exceptions, such as lottery winners and the victors on reality TV shows, both, by the way, statistical impossibilities for everyone. The ability of people to delude themselves, even when repeated attempts to apply the laws and powers described by Ms. Byrne fail miserably, and even with clear and consistent evidence to the contrary from our daily lives, is astonishing and puzzling for anyone who tries to understand the human psyche.
Ms. Byrne also takes advantage of every cognitive bias at her disposal to mislead and manipulate people. There is the bandwagon effect in which people want to do things that others are doing ("19,000,000 people can't be wrong, can they? And I don't want to miss out!"). The confirmation bias which involves looking for and interpreting information that confirms one's preconceived notions. There is the illusion of control where people tend to overestimate the control they have over events. Then there is argument from authority in which Ms. Byrne references and quotes philosophers, scientists, and other deep thinkers to give her ideas an air of legitimacy where none actually exists. What about illusory correlation which is the tendency of people to assume cause-effect relationships where one doesn't actually exist (e.g., I thought about an old friend and he emailed me the next day). And don't forget the granddaddy of them all, wishful thinking that involves forming beliefs and making decisions based on what one wants rather than on reason or evidence. The list goes on and on. The more you learn about cognitive biases, the more amazed you are that people ever make rational decisions.
Ms. Byrne also uses the vocabulary of science to add credibility to her decidedly unscientific assertions. As the New York Times article discusses, she talks a lot about magnetic properties, frequencies, energy, and the universe. She even throws in quantum physics to build her case. Ms. Byrne sure has chutzpah; she has the audacity to state that the Law of Attraction is an actual physical force akin to the Law of Gravity! Of course, she offers no scientific evidence to support her crazy ideas. Why should she if tens of millions of people will just take her at her word.
What does this ready embrace of the outlandish and the impossible say about people? Are people so gullible that they are willing to plunk down $25 for The Answer (the name of another one of these shyster books, by the way), in fact, any answer that they want to hear. Are people so lazy that they are willing to believe anyone who tells them they can have everything without doing anything? Or are we just victims of the human mind and the myriad biases and distortions of reality that lie within it?
Perhaps to acknowledge the absurdity of the Law of Attraction would be to admit that wealth, fame, love, happiness, and other dreams aren't within reach for most people. And to do so would be to surrender to the meaninglessness and hopelessness of life itself. But the real harm that Ms. Byrne and her ilk bring upon their feckless audience, beyond the vast amounts of money and time that are wasted, is that it prevents people from doing the work necessary and making the changes to actually make their dreams come true.