Occasionally I google myself. A slightly narcissistic habit, I know, but we all do it… Satisfyingly, most of the results are about me (and rightly so!). However, there is one result that always bugs me: “Welcome to Chris Hassall · a LifeSuccess Consultant“. Not only does he appear on the first page of results, but he also has the domain name “www.chrishassall.com”! So I perused his site and wasn’t impressed.
Lies, damn lies, statistics and life coaching
Mr Hassall is a “LifeSuccess Consultant” (the absence of a space between “life” and “success” is repeated all over the page so I presume it is intentional). On the “About Me” section of the site, Mr Hassall claims that “…as an Independent Licensed LifeSuccess Consultant I can take you from the brink of possibility to the path of infinite probability…” Not only is he a life coach, peddling “The Secret” among other things, but this quote (also found on his front page) shows a wanton lack of knowledge about mathematics. You can’t have an infinite probability. Probabilities are between zero and one. So there: Dr Chris Hassall 1, Mr Chris Hassall 0.
The law of attraction
Mr Hassall seems to present relatively little of himself on the site, preferring to cite Bob Proctor. Mr Proctor is an old-hand in the life coach business and was one of the principally collaborators on The Secret. For those of you not aware of the The Secret and the absurd hype that has surrounded it, here’s a quick outline: the “law of attraction” (that “like attracts like”) is an old adage that the Secret team ascribe to Hindu wisdom. However, it has only really become popular in the 20th century as a result of life coaches such as Mr Proctor. The law states that thoughts have power over the material world and that by thinking something it can come true. Hence everybody has the potential to be and have whatever they dream of.
When The Secret came out it wasn’t selling well until Oprah Winfrey publicised it on her show. The book has now sold 22 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 44 languages. Basing a book on a rather flimsy piece of New Age babble has resulted in a number of criticisms being levelled at the movement, but more of those in a moment. I was curious as to whether there was any evidence that the kind of positive thinking that The Secret advocates could be in any way beneficial for the thinker. I found a few studies which suggested that there could be such an effect.
The science behind positive thinking
Interestingly there is some evidence from a field called “positive psychology”. Macleod and Moore (2000) conducted a review of what they described as a “neglected” field of positive cognition and found that there was some evidence for efficacy in the treatment of depression and recommended more research into its application in other conditions. Norem and Chang (2002) agree that there is evidence for a benefit in “strategic optimism” but counter that there are also benefits to “defensive pessimism” (actually, Norem has written a book about it). While the former strategy involves a concerted effort to ignore reflection on options and consequences, the latter focuses precisely on these things. Thus a full consideration of all the possible negative consequences of a given action is as successful as ignoring those consequences and embracing a positive mental attitude.
Recently, an interesting exchange occurred in the literature. Coyne and Tennen (2010) published a review of a number of tenets of positive psychology, focusing on a study of whether positive thinking could influence cancer-related mortality. They claim that “…the areas of inquiry we discuss in this article, which have drawn tremendous attention from within behavioral medicine, the broader psychological community, and the popular press, are scientifically flawed. In their enthusiasm to advance positive psychology, its advocates have created an enormous gap between their assertions and scientific evidence.” They cite, among other studies, a systematic review which found no evidence of a benefit of “fighting spirit” or helplessness/hopelessness on the survival or recurrence of cancer (Petticrew et al. 2002).
The response to this article came from Aspinwall and Tedeschi (2010). They cite studies which show effects of positive thinking in cardiovascular disease in women (but only African-American women) (Tindle et al. 2009), and a large meta-analysis of 83 studies that demonstrated significant (p<0.001, for those of you to whom that means something) improvements in physical health measures in areas such mortalit, survival, cardiovascular outcomes, physiological markers (including immune function), immune function only, cancer outcomes, outcomes related to pregnancy, physical symptoms, or pain (Rasmussen et al. 2009). That meta-analysis also found that the effect was greater for subjective outcomes than objective outcomes. This was a big surprise to me, as I was expecting results like those found by Coyne and Tennen (occasional improvements, but a messy pattern) across the board. To be confronted with a fairly conclusive review (Rasmussen et al. state that “We do not need more studies to document these basic effects”) was a surprise to say the least! However, even Aspinwall and Tedeschi recognise that “…there is a dangerous popular literature that oversells research findings and promotes dubious claims about positive thinking and health”.
The bad stuff
So job done, then? Think positively and you will never get cancer and always be rich? Probably not, as it turns out… As the above articles discussed, there is a small but significant benefit to positive thinking in a number different clinical settings. However, this means that there is actually no measureable effect in a lot of patients. If we take the mindset of Mrs Hassall and Proctor, our thoughts control our bodies and our bank balances. For those who fail to achieve health or wealth then sure we have only ourselves to blame? This kind of reasoning is irrefutable based on the available premises but is also clearly flawed and deeply damaging to those who adhere to these New Age beliefs. Not only do the victims of poverty and ill-health end up being blamed for their troubles, but the movement encourages a detachment from reality. People buy expensive luxury items in the expectation that money will simply arrive to help them pay for it. Others avoid dealing with the real causes of problems, instead preferring just to ignore them and think happy thoughts. While I cringe a little at linking to it, the HuffPo has an interesting article by Barbara Ehrenreich on this issue. She cites the example of a sorority at a US university which ejected all overweight and non-white members from its ranks. This act was based on The Secret’s suggestion that “If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.”
There is enough decent science out there to advocate a positive mental attitude for health issues. If you have an illness or know somebody who is unwell then by all means cheer them up and encourage them. However, it will be conventional medicine that does most of the grunt work – positive mental attitudes will only get you so far. Indeed, in some circumstances it might pay to be a pessimist. This is the fact that The Secret has missed: not only does their panacea (a sure sign that woo is being peddled) not work anywhere near as well as they think it does, but there are circumstances where it will actively do harm. As with so many things, The Secret and the accompanying life coach industry represent a New Age movement which seeks to blow that science out of all proportion and peddle it to the gullible. Take that Chris Hassall.
[EDIT: Just had this forwarded to me: http://www.youtube.com/user/ViralVideoFilmSchool#p/u/5/69cTPMUFtG8%5D
Aspinwall, L.G. and Tedeschi, R.G. (2010) Of babies and bathwater: a reply to Coyne and Tennen’s views on positive psychology and health, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39: 27-34.
Coyne, J.C. and Tennen, H. (2010) Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39: 16-26.
Macleod, A. K. and Moore, R. (2000) Positive thinking revisited: positive cognitions, well-being and mental health, Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 7: 1-10.
Norem, J.K. and Chang, E.C. (2002) The positive psychology of negative thinking, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58: 993–1001.
Petticrew, M., Bell, R. and Hunter, D. (2002) Influence of psychological coping on survival and recurrence in people with cancer: systematic review, British Medical Journal, 325:1066.
Rasmussen H.N., Scheier M.F. and Greenhouse J.B. (2009) Optimism and physical health: A meta-analytic review, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37: 239–25.
Tindle, H.A., Chang, Y.F., Kuller, L.H., et al. (2009) Optimism, cynical hostility, and incident coronary heart disease and mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative, Circulation. 120: 656–662.