Critically Assessing the Motivational Framework of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret

RemPsyc
9 min readFeb 14, 2023

November 27, 2014

Abstract

This paper critically reviews a well-known self-help book, The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, with the help of empirically-based human motivational principles. The Secret is powerfully appealing to mass audiences, may have an important impact on ignition to initiate a deep process of self-change and may even moderately help achieving one’s goals. However it lacks in many other areas that makes its central claim, “you attract what you think about”, much weaker than presented. Most importantly, the book fails to highlight the limitations of self-regulatory strength, devaluate effort and implementation plans and fails to unambiguously promote the importance of autonomy in self-regulation. Furthermore, the author does not bother discerning extrinsic from intrinsic goals, which has important consequences for both the achievement of these goals and for the benefits collected.

Keywords: Secret, motivation, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, materialism, SMAART goals, sense of competence, sense of autonomy, sense of interrelatedness, effort, implementation plans.

Critically Assessing the Motivational Framework of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret

Over 25 million copies of Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 best-seller, The Secret, circulate globally (S&S, 2013). The Secret is even considered a “societal phenomenon” (ESLS, 2008). Baumeister and Tierney summarized the book quite well by quoting Norman Vincent Peale: “The basic factor in psychology is the realizable wish. The man who assumes success tends already to have success” (2011, p.7). Byrne calls this “The Law of Attraction” (2006, p. 4): you attract into your life what you think about, be it positive or negative. This paper critically reviews the motivational framework of The Secret by adopting an empirically-based human motivation approach. Although the book taps into a few validated psychological principles, it lacks in many regards concerning optimal goal attainment.

The Secret Is Good For You

The Secret features many successful stories that easily appeal to the reader. Although anecdotes don’t necessarily have much scientific value, they do have inspirational value. The philosophy of The Secret that everything is possible tends to produce a phenomenon that Daniel Coyle calls ignition, which he defines as the “motivational fuel” that furnishes the “energy, passion, and commitment” to lead us to action and attain our goals (2009, p. 97). Byrne is particularly skilled in producing high emotional arousal and desire in its readers. The book gives them hope that they too may achieve their greatest dreams; it gives them a “vision of their ideal future selves” (2009, p. 105).

The Secret also resonates with Coyle’s (2009) description of how myelin is built: the more one practices an activity or entertain certain thoughts, the more those neurons are fired, and the more this myelinated circuit becomes facilitated. Ranganathan, Siemionow, Liu, Sahgal, and Yue (2004) even showed that a group of people using visualization increased their muscles mass by almost half of people who trained for real at the gym. Likewise, people feeling certain emotions — happiness, courage, peace — will tend to reinforce the myelin circuitry associated with these emotions, allowing them to maintain a certain “positive inertia”, and as well as build psychological resources (Fredrickson, 2004). Visualization may likewise improve probabilities of achieving specific goals, especially if the behavioral process is visualized rather than the final outcome (Pham & Taylor, 1999). Following Coyle’s explanation of myelin formation, people that apply the Secret to achieve certain objectives will fire neuronal circuitry associated with the achievement of these goals, facilitating its future activation by, for example, facilitating the detection of relevant cues. In addition, Baumeister and Tierney, in their book Willpower (2011, p. 180), explain that various practices — such as trying to keep your back straight, speak more elegantly or maintain a religious practice — improve self-control by forcing yourself to develop a consistent habit.

The Secret similarly promotes self-control-building habits. First, you have to master and monitor your thoughts — a feat that requires significant self-control (in this regards, The Secret recommends meditation, which Baumeister and Tierney describe as building mental discipline, p. 180). Second, The Secret advises to practice a daily “ritual” of feeling deep gratitude for everything in your life, a practice known as having many benefits (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Lastly, the method The Secret offers — ask, believe, receive — is a form of prayer, with all of the respective benefits of which Baumeister and Tierney talk about. According to Baumeister and Tierney, having an omniscient higher power is a powerful monitoring, and Byrne makes it clear that the Universe monitors you constantly and at every moment — indeed because it starts manifesting what you request instantly.

Achieving Our Goals

So the Secret can affect our brain, motivate us and increase our self-discipline, but can it actually helps us achieve our goals? Baumeister and Heatherton (1996) postulates that three elements are necessary for this: having clear goals, monitoring your behavior, and self-control resources. The Secret also makes clarification one of its main theme:

“You get to choose what you want, but you must get clear about what you want” (Byrne, 2006, p. 47). Now The Secret doesn’t promote monitoring your behaviors directly. Nevertheless, the author advocates monitoring your emotions, which serve as a constant feedback for the kind of thoughts one maintains (Byrne, 2006, p. 43). The assumption is that positive, goal-oriented thoughts will lead to the realization of that goal. Now, probably the most important shortcoming of The Secret is that it does not recognize our limited self-control resources. On the contrary, it assumes that we have unlimited self-control resources, because “we” are not the one “acting”; it is the Universe that do so. Thus, in this perspective, achieving your goals demands no willpower reserves. Even though it occasionally acknowledges that some action of your part may be desirable, it really is the Universe that acts through you.

Similarly to Baumeister and Heatherton, Richard Koestner described “SMAART goals” (2014, Sep. 4): the goals must be specific, measurable, attainable, approach-oriented, realist, and time-framed. Concerning specificity, The Secret varies from asking for a very specific car, house, trip or even feather to wishing for “joy, abundance, prosperity [or] bliss” (p.151). Concerning measurability, it also varies from “I want a 100 000 $ cheque” to “I want wealth”. In both cases, there are no specific recommendations about being specific. Now, attainability is one weakness of The Secret, as it is said that you have the absolute and ultimate control over your reality, and so there is nothing that is really unattainable. The positive phrasing of every demand is strongly emphasized throughout the book: “The law of attraction doesn’t compute ‘don’t’ or ‘not’ or ‘no,’ or any other words of negation” (Byrne, 2006, p. 14). Realism fares no better than attainability:

“If someone is overweight, it came from thinking ‘fat thoughts’ [….] A person cannot think ‘thin thoughts’ and be fat’ [….] Food cannot cause you to put on weight, unless you think it can” (Byrne, 2006, p. 58, 59). This worryingly resembles what Polivy and Herman describe as the “false hopes of self-change” (2002): big promises and most likely never-arriving results (Koestner, 2014, Sep. 4). In contrast to these promises, a study by Oettingen and Wadden (1991) showed that subjects with positive fantasies lost less weight than those with negative fantasies. However, the same study also showed that positive expectations were associated with more weight lost than negative expectations. Additionally, one controversial passage of The Secret advises its readers to avoid looking at fat people in order not to get fat (p. 61). For their part, Baumeister and Tierney write that, without “suggesting [to] dump your chubby friends … there does seem to have a connection between what you weigh and whom you socialize with” (2011, p. 230). Finally, time-framing also varies from moment-to-moment goals (e.g., having a good day) to very time-specific (e.g., receive a cheque on the 17 of December 2014).

Koestner acknowledges that self-control is limited and proposes 3 “keys” to overcome this: “Borrow resources from friends and family, support goals with implementation plans, and select or develop autonomous goals” (Koestner, 2014, Sep. 4). Byrne’s book does not refer at any point to the idea of borrowing resources from friends and family as, in her mind, the Universe provides all that which you need. The second most major drawback of The Secret is that it purposefully advises NOT to bring about any implementation plan, as the Universe is supposed to do everything for you: “How it will happen, how the Universe will bring it to you, is not your concern or job” (Byrne,2006, p. 51). Yet, implementation plans is a very effective and evidence-supported strategy to help achieve one’s goals (Gollwitzer, 1999). Similarly, not only should you not make implementation plans, but you should not put in any effort toward your goal. Yet, Mueller and Dweck (1998) showed that children receiving positive feedback on their efforts did better at future tasks than children receiving positive feedback on their abilities.

Lastly, it is unclear if The Secret supports autonomous goals or not. On the one hand, The Secret tends to promote materialistic ideals such as money, cars, houses, wife (like if your wife was only “another object to get your hands on”), success or popularity. It should not be a surprise, then, that the book that inspired Byrne to write The Secret was Wallace Wattles’ The Science of Getting Rich.

On the other hand, Byrne (2006) timidly advises to follow “your” goals, but she bothers not to distinguish clearly potentially introjected ideals (i.e., values that are not deeply endorsed): “Make sure your thoughts, words, actions, and surroundings don’t contradict your desires” (p. 123), “Focus only on your dreams, your visions” (p. 163), and “Now that you know you can have, be, or do anything, and there are no limits, what do you want?” (2006, p. 47). Although Byrne refers to the “self”, the necessary task of recognizing and “cleaning-up” socially introjected desires is absent. Nevertheless, she also puts great emphasis on emotions such as love (“The Greatest Emotion,” 2006, p. 38) and gratitude (the one thing to keep from the Secret), that, in my understanding, promotes the expression of the true self.

The sense of autonomy is also one of Deci’s (1996) three basic psychological needs, with the other two being the needs for competence and interrelatedness. If it seems that The Secret encourages more or less autonomous goals, it does bring a sense of competence to those that believe in it: if you can do whatever you want and become whoever you want, you can also develop the competence you want. The sense of interrelatedness is also present but in an unconventional yet global form:

“We are One. We are all connected, and we are all part of the One Energy Field, or the One Supreme Mind, or the One Consciousness, or the One Creative Source” (2006, p. 162). It is unknown if this type of interrelatedness provides more or less benefits than conventional, community based interrelatedness.

Conclusion

The Secret manages to tap, although imperfectly, into a few validated psychological principles (clarity/specificity/measurability of goal, monitoring, approach-oriented, time-framed, autonomous goals, sense of competence and interrelatedness), explaining part of its success. Overall, the central principle, “The Law of Attraction,” lacks in many regards for optimal goal attainment and motivation. In particular, it neglects to describe the limits of self-regulatory strength, devaluate effort and implementation plans, and fails to adequately distinguish extrinsic from intrinsic motivation.

References

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Koestner, R. (2014, September 9). Lecture 3: Is trying to lose weight a healthy goal or a maladaptive, false hope? Lecture conducted at McGill University, Québec, Canada.

Mueller, C., & Dweck, C. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33–52. doi:10.1037//0022–3514.75.1.33

Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 167–175. doi:10.1007/bf01173206

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Polivy, J., & Herman, C. (2002). If at first you don’t succeed: False hopes of self-change. American Psychologist, 57(9), 677–689.doi:10.1037//0003–066x.57.9.677

Ranganathan, V., Siemionow, V., Liu, J., Sahgal, V., & Yue, G. (2004). From mental power to muscle power — gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia, 42(7), 944–956. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2003.11.018

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.

S&S Announces New Book By ‘Secret’ Bestseller, Byrne. (2013, August 7). Publishers Weekly. Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/book-deals/article/58622-s-s-announces-new-book-by-secret-bestseller-byrne.html

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RemPsyc

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power. (Laozi)