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Opinion

The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

By Adam Alter

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There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in fantasy, as long as you aren’t ultimately hoping to indulge in the real thing.

Since publishing “The Secret,” in 2006, the Australian author Rhonda Byrne has been writing self-help manifestos based on the idea that people who think positive thoughts are rewarded with happiness, wealth, influence, wisdom, and success. In November, 2013, she published “Hero,” the fourth book in the series. The book showcases the wisdom of twelve heroes—businesspeople, sports stars, writers, and philanthropists. Byrne’s idea isn’t new—it’s been a mainstay among greeting-card companies, motivational speakers, and school teachers for decades—but she’s become one of its most visible prophets. “The way to change a lack of belief is very simple,” Byrne writes. “Begin thinking the opposite thoughts to what you’ve been thinking about yourself: that you can do it, and that you have everything within you to do it.”

There’s some truth to Byrne’s ideas about the relationship between thought and action. New inventions emerge after their inventors struggle through years of planning and mental preparation, for example. When people have a condition called somatization disorder, their psychological or emotional distress can manifest in physical symptoms—joint pain, headaches, even seizures. Byrne is also right to emphasize the stubbornness of thought. Once you think something, it is very difficult to eradicate that idea from your mind. The late, brilliant social psychologist Dan Wegner described this as the great irony of mental control: in order to insure that you aren’t thinking about an unwanted idea, you have to continually turn your mind to that very idea. How do you know that you aren’t thinking of a white bear driving a red Ferrari unless you think about whether you’re thinking it?

Read the full article as published in The New Yorker.

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Adam Alter is an Assistant Professor of Marketing with affiliated appointment in the Psychology Department.