If someone tries to tell you it’s possible to bend reality with your mind, be very wary. If they throw in references to quantum physics to try to make it sound scientific, run.
The idea that human will can change the way the world works is an old one. We don’t know how long people have been undertaking rituals to bring rain, fertility or animal migrations, but it’s certainly a very long time. People making these claims have achieved status, power and eventually wealth by convincing everyone they were particularly good at it, and in some cases promising to teach the skill. Some no doubt fooled themselves, while others didn’t care who they misled.
The rise of science proved an obstacle to those seeking to get ahead this way. As humanity provided more and more physical explanations for phenomena the role of magic was diminished to fantasy books, but not everyone was happy to accept this. For those missing an angle, quantum physics was a God- (or perhaps Einstein-) send. Compared to the world we are used to, things behave so strangely at the quantum level it’s possible to make all sorts of nonsense sound feasible. Once you’ve accepted quantum superposition and entanglement, what is one more initially implausible claim, particularly if accompanied by the promise it can bring you all your heart’s desire?
Into this gap have stepped books like The Secret, referring to a “law of attraction”, which can give you the life you dream of. Some describe the law of attraction in purely psychological terms. Tony Robbins, for example, quotes the very pre-quantum Buddha as saying, “What you think, you become.”
There is enough truth in this, at least metaphorically, for it to have some resonance. We’ve all seen examples of people who lost faith in themselves – whether through internal brain ruminations or too much negativity from those around them – and failed to achieve things that were within their capacity. For these people, focusing on their achievements and their goals rather than obsessing over failures can be life-changing. There is a reason cognitive behavioral therapy has been verified in many clinical trials as an effective treatment for a great many people.
However, a program that helps some people some of the time isn’t enough of a marketing gimmick for everyone. Enter the notion that the “Law of Attraction” is a universal physical law like gravity. Not only do positive thoughts attract positive outcomes, the argument goes, but the connection is specific – thoughts about abundant money or sexual partners that exactly meet your specifications inevitably brings them into your life.
For this, being able to throw around terms that sound scientific – because used properly they are – but that most people don’t understand is very useful. Thus we have a book called Quantum Success and a (separate) Quantum Success Coaching Academy, founded by (can’t believe I am typing this) “a master-certified law of attraction coach.”
One problem with this is that quantum physics is only known to operate at the level of the very small. The word quantum originally referred to the minimum possible amount of a physical property such as energy.
Those claiming a quantum basis for the law of attraction like to refer to The Observer Effect, which is indeed one of the strangest things about quantum mechanics. It is, however, something only demonstrated at subatomic level, such as for individual electrons. The famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment was an attempt to demonstrate how the whole idea breaks down when applied to the familiar universe of cats and boxes.
Taken literally, a quantum law of attraction would bring you the smallest possible unit of money – one cent perhaps, probably from somewhere with a badly devalued currency.
Of course it won’t even do that, because the universe is not a machine centered around your thoughts. If it was, it might just as easily have a law of repulsion. Electric charges and magnetic poles both repel like, and they are much more closely based on quantum phenomena than your dreams of a owning a yacht.
Physicists, and now biologists, have put considerable energy into exploring whether quantum phenomena leak into the classical world we experience. There are certainly cases where this can apply. By cooling materials to temperatures barely above absolute zero (-273.15°C) we can make clouds of atoms behave in a quantum-like manner. No one, however, has got their experiment to behave by thinking at it sternly. Likewise, the capacity of some animals to detect magnetic fields appears to arise from quantum superposition, but pigeons read the fields, they don’t transform them to their will.
There are many dangers to this sort of abuse of quantum physics, besides any harm to the reputation of actual physics researchers. One is that people who try it and don’t get what they need will feel even worse about themselves. It’s one thing to fail when circumstances are against you, quite another if you think there is some universal law only you were incapable of applying.
Moreover, listening too hard to the quantum calls of The Secret "practitioners" can prevent people using approaches that do have scientific standing. If clinical trials have shown a treatment has an 80 percent success rate for your medical condition, but some less-than-wonderful side-effects, it might be tempting to go with the quantum magic promised elsewhere. By the time you’ve realized quantum physics has not manifested any attraction of good health, it may be too late.
There is of course one way in which this “law of attraction” does work. When spouted by someone sufficiently charismatic it tends to attract a lot of money from people who will pay the promoter to teach it to them. In this case, however, it operates more like a conservation of energy law – every dollar in their bank account is one less in someone else’s.