What To Believe

• There are two popular ideas worth exploring when it comes to the concept of luck: the law of attraction, and the idea of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Research into the effectiveness of the law of attraction (or wishful thinking) yields no support, and indicates that fantasy can actually undermine success by making us less likely to take useful action.

• A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. It proves how powerful belief can be.

• If you believe you are a lucky person, you are more likely to create that reality yourself — not out of thin air, or by magic, but because you are proactively taking steps to make that outcome a reality.

• Robert Wiseman and Alan Kirman have independently discovered that being lucky may come down to believing that you are lucky.

• Lucky people do visualize, yet they tend to imagine not the outcome but the performance of the practical steps needed to reach that outcome. They tend to be positive and optimistic, easily forget past mistakes, trust their gut feelings, and put a positive interpretation on events by imagining how things could have been so much worse. This, in effect, means that people who believe they’re lucky, are!

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The Law of Attraction

You’ve almost certainly encountered this principle before, whether you know it or not. The Law of Attraction is the belief that your thoughts by themselves can shape the world around you; that we can color our thoughts with emotion and feeling and those thoughts will then “manifest” themselves in our lives. The idea is that if you hold a certain end point in your mind and visualize it vividly, you magnetically draw that very thing towards you.

You might think about having a life filled with loving relationships and profound happiness, and over time, you will supposedly manifest love and happiness in your life simply because you desire it and think about it. Importantly, concrete actions are not really part of the process. The universe is thought to run on a “law” beyond conventional cause and effect, and that by adopting the energy, vibration or frequency of a particular goal, one naturally aligns with it. There are many approaches and definitions to this approach.

A Google search of the Law of Attraction will yield all kinds of results claiming that it can make a real difference in your life. The We Shape Life Organization breaks the method down into seven simple steps:

1. Relax your mind through 5 to 10 minutes of meditation.

2. Think about exactly what you want, creating a clear and detailed image in your mind. Don’t allow yourself to have any self-doubt.

3. Ask the universe for what you want.

4. Write your wishes down and feel them happening to you.

5. Feel that your wishes are coming true. Think, speak, and act as if they already have.

6. Show gratitude by recording all of the blessings the universe has bestowed upon you.

7. Be patient and trust the universe.

You can characterize this process however you want. But then again, visualization and positive affirmations don’t sound particularly promising to the skeptical mind, either, and we’ve already learned that there is some merit to that method. The real question is, is there any hard evidence to also support the Law of Attraction as a legitimate method for improving one’s life? Or is it pseudoscience that masquerades as self-help?


But in the interests of testing the idea empirically, the researchers broke up the study’s participants into three groups:

• Group 1 - Students were asked to spend a few minutes each day visualizing with a clear image how great it would feel to score highly on an important mid-term exam that was coming up in a few days.

• Group 2 - Students were asked to spend a few minutes each day visualizing when, where, and how they intended to study for the exam.

• Group 3 - This was the control group. Students were not asked to visualize anything to do with the exam.

The results were telling. The students from Group 1 studied the least and got the lowest grades on the exam. On the bright side, they did feel better about themselves during the process, but that is a small silver lining considering that their tangible results were contrary to what they had thought about. The results might also offer insight into the many people claiming that the law of attraction has worked for them.

Students in Group 2 who visualized themselves studying actually prepared better, studied more, and earned higher marks on the exam than the students from the other groups. They also reported that they were less stressed about the exam.

Pham and Taylor’s study is another point of evidence supporting the benefits of visualization while refuting that the Law of Attraction has an ability to bring us benefit or good fortune. A simple belief in change attracting good luck may not do much good by itself, but visualizing exactly what that change entails does help.

However, one study is certainly insufficient to rule out the Law of Attraction.


The researchers rated their fantasies on a spectrum from highly negative to highly positive, with some of the positive fantasies including such clichés as making eye contact across the room and knowing that it was love at first sight. The fantasies that were rated more negatively included some particularly devastating thoughts, with one girl describing her daydreaming thought as, “We are both free and single, he turns to me, smiles and asks how I am. For reasons that I still do not fully understand, I explain that I already have a boyfriend.”

Five months later, the researchers reconnected with the study participants to see what had happened with their crushes in that time. On average, those students who had fantasized positively about their crushes had been less likely to be forthcoming about their feelings to the crush, or to otherwise pursue a relationship with them in some way, relative to those who had imagined things working out poorly.

Why? Much like the positive thinkers from the first study, these people may have felt better about themselves by fantasizing, daydreaming, and utilizing the Law of Attraction, but their positive thinking failed to manifest itself tangibly in their actual lives. Wishing for luck brought nothing but complacency. Could it be that fantasizing provided a kind of soothing temporary pseudo-outcome that made people believe that taking positive action was less urgent?

One of the researchers from the last study, Gabriele Oettingen, conducted another study measuring how positive thinking about career advancement correlated with actual career advancement over two years.

Senior college students were asked to note how often they fantasized about getting their dream job after graduation. When Oettingen followed up with the participants three years later, she learned that the students who had fantasized more frequently about career success had submitted fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and were working for smaller salaries. It’s as though the fantasies were not a stimulus for positive change but rather a replacement for it.

Based on the combined results of these three studies, it seems that the Law of Attraction may, in reality, be detrimental, not helpful, in manifesting what we desire to achieve in our actual lives.

Let’s unpack why. Thinking positively makes us feel better, but perhaps feeling better leads to passivity. It’s like using a Band-Aid and reducing the pain of a symptom while ignoring the cause of the pain itself. In other words, feeling as if we already have what we desire or that we can attain it through good luck will make us less motivated and less proactive about pursuing our goals and desires. The Law of Attraction is about belief and thought, and even visualization emphasizes process and detail. Proponents of the law of attraction are sometimes explicitly told to relax and assume that the problem is already being solved behind the scenes. This reduces tension and urgency, which may feel better in the short term. What it doesn’t do, however, is move anyone forward.

So what can we do to take advantage of positive thinking and the power of our minds? And how can we do this without succumbing to pleasant fantasy and wishful thinking?

Wishing or fantasizing that we reach our goals and attain all of our desires without action doesn’t seem to do anything but harm us. But visualizing taking the actions to make those things happen actually makes us more likely to be proactive. So, the quality and content of our fantasies matter. While our positive ideas, thoughts, and dreams can help us determine what we want, by themselves, they don’t necessarily lead to action or good luck.

The Law of Attraction is still being pushed because people want to believe that they can achieve everything they desire without putting in the time and effort to actually make it happen, but unfortunately, that remains an unrealistic and impossible dream. In fact, entertaining and indulging the lazy human desire for reward without effort may make it even more likely that you’ll end up with an outcome you don’t want.

The bottom line is, creating “good luck” in our lives is really more about creating the conditions for positive things to happen to us. If you want to work at your dream job and make a higher salary, you’ll need to put in the effort to apply for jobs, work hard, and build up your skills and networking connections to realistically qualify yourself for that dream job.

How do you apply the method of visualization and affirmation to reaching goals that are more abstract than shooting free throws better, or not getting stressed out about taking a test? Easy: embrace the process or journey of reaching your goals, rather than focusing on the destination. A few examples will clarify.

Let’s say you really want to get into better shape so that you can show off your swimsuit body on your next tropical vacation. Imagining yourself with the body you want won’t help you get it, but visualizing yourself working out in the gym or hiking a nearby mountain path just might increase the chances that you actually do those things. Repeating self-affirmations that you are disciplined and hard-working and that you will stick to your exercise regimen — even on the days you feel tired or discouraged — can build your belief in yourself to accomplish your goals. Again, you are creating the conditions for luck, not the positive outcome itself. You are imagining the intermediate steps that carry you to a goal, rather than focusing on the goal itself with no thought for the practical way that the goal comes about.

Fantasy and daydreaming can be useful. But daydreams mean nothing if they’re not tethered to reality somehow. A fantastically imagined visualization might yield valuable insights or help you better understand what you want. But when you’re done daydreaming, you’ll still need to grapple with material reality to make the changes necessary.

If you want to give yourself a mental boost, visualize yourself working through the process of reaching that destination or reward. The real magic is in building up the internal belief that you are capable of creating the conditions for “luck,” not that your beliefs can manifest luck into your life in and of themselves. This is really an extreme external locus of control dressed up as an internal locus of control. Good luck doesn’t come around just by wishing and waiting for it, as much as we may want it to.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Robert K. Merton, a 20th-century sociologist, may have coined this term, but examples of this can be found in literature as far back as ancient Greece and ancient India. The concept is one that is familiar to most people, as they’ve likely witnessed it unfolding in their own lives. The self-fulfilling prophecy is basically a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true due to positive feedback between belief and behavior.

Put simply, this is the idea that a positive or negative prophecy, strongly held belief, or delusion can sufficiently influence people so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the prophecy itself. The classic story of Oedipus, for example, wherein a father had a prophecy that his son was going to kill him, sent him away to prevent it, but the sending away resulted in the very series of actions that led to his death. A more everyday example is a person who is so worried about making a bad first impression at an interview that they stay up all night stressing about it, oversleep, and then make a bad impression at the interview the next morning because they’re tired and anxious.

This leads to the behavioral confirmation event, in which behaviors that are influenced by expectations cause those very expectations to come true. You may go to an interview, completely blow it, and come home thinking, “see? I knew it.”

If you think about it, this isn’t a hard idea to grasp. If someone expects something of you, whether it be good or bad, you will live up to that expectation more often than not. We are no longer in the murky realms of luck and probability, but simply playing, again, with perception and expectation – which turn out to play a massive role in what we think of as luck. If you believe you have bad luck, you will act in a way that will ensure bad luck will enter your life, and so on. You create the cycle in which you live through the power of your thoughts and intentions.

I can still remember my very first work presentation that I had to deliver to a group of colleagues about some research I had done. Logically, I knew that my work was fine and that all my data was correct. However, this wasn’t as easy to convince myself of in practice. I was so certain that I would forget a point or speak too quietly and make a complete fool of myself. On the day, I found myself trying to do the complete opposite. This resulted in a speech that was mostly yelled, far too long, and excruciatingly slow. I looked and sounded insane. This is a perfect example of how a belief, particularly a negative one, can focus someone’s attention and cause the very thing they feared to begin with.

In the case of luck, if you believe you have bad luck, you will ignore every positive thing that occurs and focus blindly on everything that is negative. This is something we all do. You may have had a perfectly ordinary day at work, but as soon as you make one error, it suddenly feels like your whole day starts to turn into a disaster. Often, this is because focusing on the negatives will cause you to act in a way that is contrary to what generates good luck. Instead of being open-minded and willing to explore new possibilities, you let tunnel vision take over, and your fear shuts you down.

A self-fulfilling prophesy can be so powerful that it even causes us to interpret positive outcomes as negative ones, if it means they align with our catastrophic predictions. For example, you may be so convinced of your bad luck in love that you come away from a neutral or even positive first date and then deliberately decide it was a flop, and never contact the person again. They disappear from your life, and you will never know if they might have been the love of your life had you waited to go on a second date. You tell others, “I’m unlucky in love.” And because you believe so, it’s true. The funny thing is how closely this resembles the law of attraction, while essentially being the very opposite!

Bad luck isn’t always centered on an event or situation. Plenty of people are certain that they have a particular object that is the sole reason behind every “bad luck” incident in their lives. Perhaps it’s a pair of socks (or absence thereof) that you just know is behind all your troubles, or a song that is always playing when you have a particularly embarrassing moment. Some people are convinced they are forever jinxed by their unattractive name, a weird physical feature, or some random fact of their past.

Whatever it is, if you believe something will give or bring you bad luck, you will undoubtedly begin to act differently around it, fixate on it in an unhealthy way, and ultimately act differently than you normally would. You may feel that your acne is single-handedly ruining your social life, and so you avoid eye contact, and squirm uncomfortably when people look at you – which is a great way to ruin your social life! It is because you act differently and out of your normal flow or behavior that things may seem to just fall apart, just like an athlete who overthinks his game strategy and ends up ruining it all.

If you believe you have great luck, you are more likely to create it — not out of thin air, and not by magic, but by not driving away beneficial situations. The lucky rabbit’s foot you carry in your pocket has no magical powers, but if it causes you to smile, think positively and have faith that you can come up with proactive and creative solutions, then it is, in effect, a lucky rabbit’s foot.

The power of belief

Tennessee Williams once said, “luck is believing you are lucky.”

It’s a heavy irony. Wishful thinking doesn’t create good outcomes, but believing it does will. So, it’s worth believing in luck, despite its not existing! Rather than a supernatural force or a random event, luck is best thought of as a subjective interpretation of neutral events that has a concrete influence over how those events play out.

A belief in luck can lead to a “virtuous cycle” – i.e., a loop of confirmation that ends up creating the narrative it believes exists. Counterintuitively, believing you are lucky makes you work harder and make better plans. Even better, believing you are lucky makes you pay more attention to emerging opportunities and possible solutions so that you’re better able to capitalize than those who believe they have rotten luck.

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You may start to notice these effects in people around you. Someone may plan ahead and pack tissues in their bag and, when someone gets a nosebleed, triumphantly presents the tissues and says, “look at that! How lucky.” You may notice that the pessimistic people who always grumble and say, “huh, just my luck!” are also the ones who seem to do very little to improve their situation, or actively blame the outcomes of their failure to act on some supernatural force that has a mysterious grudge on them. Such people may even unconsciously jeopardize themselves and invite failure just so they can confirm their belief in themselves as unfortunate.

Economist Alan Kirman of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris has conducted a few studies into the random things we consider lucky breaks, like finding a parking spot. He discovered that people might be trapped in bad luck spirals without consciously knowing what’s happening. Our perceptions and attributions can compound and reinforce themselves via our behavior, so that we eventually start to feel like the world really is against us – even though we are the ones bringing about those outcomes. People might, for instance, believe that certain people are just lucky when it comes to spotting great parking spaces, but believe this to such an extent that they actually “learn to choose the spots far back and leave the spots for other spots for the guys who are ‘lucky.’” Perception really matters!

In addition to using visualization to imagine yourself taking concrete steps towards your goal, try to incorporate affirmations to cement a belief in yourself as a lucky person. Don’t overthink it. Even if you don’t actually believe it, tell yourself that pretending to believe will still have the desired effect. Regularly tell yourself things like:

“I’m a lucky person.”

“This obstacle is obviously only a temporary glitch.”

“I’m pretty resourceful and good at spotting opportunities.”

“There’s always a silver lining.”

“Good things tend to happen to me.”

The people who consider themselves lucky? Kirman discovered that they seemed to share a constellation of attitudes and perspectives that included a general optimism, a determination not to dwell on mistakes from the past, and a willingness to listen to their gut intuition. Richard Wiseman has even created a “Luck School” where he trains people to cultivate these precise attitudes. Remarkably, 80% of the “unlucky” people who attended this school claimed afterwards that they were happier and luckier.

Finally, there is a habit that self-described lucky people tend to indulge in, and that’s a particular interpretation of even negative events. For example, if a car races by you in the road and narrowly avoids running you down, you could say, “I’m so unlucky, I almost died!” or you could say, “How lucky am I? I could have died but didn’t!” This is so-called counterfactual thinking, and it’s associated with being more grateful, being happier and feeling that you’re luckier in general. It’s the willingness to put a light rosy tint on your interpretation of events, which doesn’t exactly change those events, but may well influence subsequent events. For example, if you think you are lucky to have escaped death, you may feel so much more grateful for your life, and the “second chance” you’ve been given, that you go out of your way to take care of yourself and avoid risks. You thereby prolong your life and may actually live longer, especially when compared to a person who unconsciously felt that death was always lurking around the corner.

Imagining an alternative life path in which you didn’t experience a lucky outcome you currently enjoy summons up powerful feelings of gratitude and optimism. And it comes from simply reframing events to focus on what is actually quote fortunate already.

At the start of this chapter, we investigated whether something like the law of attraction actually has any evidence to back it up. We found none. However, if the law of attraction inadvertently made you believe that you were a luckier person than most, and this then caused you to subtly but powerfully shift your behavior in the world. One could then argue that belief in the theory had some positive outcomes, even if the theory itself is worthless. Lady Luck turns out to be a tricky customer after all!

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The Science of Self
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Russell Newton