Is The Law of Attraction Real?

Napoleon Hill reads a copy of Think and Grow Rich

Think and Grow Rich is one of those venerated old classics that everyone’s vaguely heard of. It’s always on the list of must-read personal finance books, and several people have recommended it to me personally. Without knowing anything in particular about it, I finally picked it up recently.

…and put it down again, a couple of hours later, spidey senses tingling like crazy: The constant name-dropping, the obsession with wealth, the author’s refusal to let his deaf son learn sign language, the ‘vibrations in the ether’, and most disturbingly, ENTIRE PASSAGES WRITTEN IN BLOCK CAPS.

The book raised more red flags than a Chairman Mao rally, so I did a bit of poking around. The first thing I learned is that Think and Grow Rich really is an incredibly influential cultural touchstone. More on this later.

The second thing I learned is that the entire premise of the book is a barefaced lie, fabricated by a professional conman. Napoleon Hill claimed to have spent 20 years distilling the principles of the greats into a philosophy of success; a mission assigned to him by none other than his billionaire friend Andrew Carnegie. But Hill never met Carnegie, or Charles Schwab, or Ford, or any of the titans he name-checks. An adviser to not one, but two US presidents? Nope. He did manage to get a photo with Edison, but even that was obtained by deception.

At the time Hill was supposedly learning at Carnegie’s feet, he was, in fact, on the run from his creditors, who he had ripped off through various scams. There were several warrants out for his arrest. He started going by his middle name, Napoleon, to throw off the scent.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the revered granddaddy of self-help gurus had at least four failed marriages, was violent to the point of allegedly choking his infant daughter, threatened to kill at least one of his wives, neglected his children except to borrow money from them, and was almost constantly broke. Lies, lies, lies. And this barely scratches the surface.1

The Law of Attraction: Finding Ground Zero

Napoleon Hill was a pretty shitty human being, but you have to give him props for being perhaps the the greatest conman in history. It’s not just the sheer brazenness of the con, but that he got away with it scot-free. His book, published in 1937, is still a bestseller today. In fact, it’s the 12th best-selling book of all time. It has 4.5 stars on Amazon. I’m not even mad; I’m impressed.

None of the glowing reviewers seem to be aware that rather than soaking up the principles of the greats, curated and distilled over 20 years, they’re reading fiction cut from whole cloth by a conman whose only expertise lay in parting fools from their money.

As incredible as this is, it’s not the topic of this post. Ideas must be judged on their merits, and Think and Grow Rich is the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the modern fetish for positive thinking.

Hill didn’t come up with the ‘Law of Attraction’ himself, but he perfected the archetypal self-help format: if you trace back the explosion in gurus waxing lyrical about the the power of belief, Think and Grow Rich is ground zero. Every purveyor of inspiration porn for the last 80 yearsTony Robbins, Oprah, Deepak Chopra, The Secret—has a direct lineage to this book.

It all starts with this idea: If you believe in yourself, the universe will provide. Conquer your thoughts, and you conquer the world. Here’s how Hill shouts it at you:


This is not going to be one of those articles shitting on the Law of Attraction, but I do need to get one thing out of my system: The arrogance! The sheer, unbridled narcissism required to believe that the universe—a 13 billion year old void of ice and rock—‘cares’ not only about a bunch of pants-wearing monkeys hurtling along on a far-flung rock, but cares about one particular monkey, and exists to fulfill its petty and venal desires. You’re not an insignificant speck, you’re the star of the whole show! The entire history of the universe—nuclear fusion birthing stars, matter becoming earth, the first replicator in the clay—was really just a cosmic Rube Goldberg machine designed to deliver you that cute pair of Manolo Blahniks you circled in the catalogs…

yeah hi, i'll take the royal blue satin pumps, size 8

And yet, this kind of thing might just work. Huh?

Others have already done a thorough job of eviscerating claims about ‘energy’ and ‘vibrations’ and the hilarious attempts, in recent years, to press quantum mechanics into service. Dispelling blatant woo is like shooting fish in a barrel—which is to say, unsporting, a bit cruel, and you still end up covered in fish guts.

Some people have proposed convincing alternate explanations, which are more interesting, but I don’t think they go quite far enough. Last year I read about a grand unifying theory of how the brain works. Over the last 10 years, this theory has become central to the work of many (most?) neuroscientists, but hardly anyone else seems to know about yet.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, because it might explain, well, everything—including the the Law of Attraction, positive thinking, and the power of the unconscious mind. Be warned that the rest of this post is a lot more speculative than usual, but I think we can have a pretty decent stab at whether these sort of ideas are worth pursuing.

The first question to ask: just how real is reality, anyway?

Out of the Retinas of Babes

I had the pleasure of meeting my newborn niece recently. I don’t hang out with babies very often, so I kind of forgot that they’re basically aliens when they’re freshly squeezed. Her eyes couldn’t focus on anything. She couldn’t control a single muscle. She might as well exist in a different dimension to all the cooing adults… and for all intents and purposes, she did.

A newborn has the closest experience we’ll ever get to raw, unfiltered reality. If we could perceive it, it’d be a horrible and confusing hellscape: an overwhelming deluge of sensory data, a gaping hole in the the middle of our vision, jerky still-frames of vision, distorted clusters of pixels junking up the place.

The law of attraction: how real is reality, anyway?
you’d be screaming and filling your diaper too

This is probably why we can’t remember anything from infancy—it’s such an alien experience that it’s literally incomprehensible to our developed brains. How do we get from there to here?

We’re deluged with ~11 million bits of data every second, but the conscious mind can only process ~50 bits per second. In order to not go completely insane, we have to block out 99.9995 per cent of the world.

Fortunately, we have an excellent filtering system. The new model of the brain is a prediction machine, with two distinct streams of processing. Here’s the psychiatrist-blogger Scott Alexander, whose review I am heavily cribbing from:

The bottom-up stream starts out as all that incomprehensible light and darkness and noise that we need to process. It gradually moves up all the cognitive layers that we already knew existedthe edge-detectors that resolve it into edges, the object-detectors that shape the edges into solid objects, etcetera.

The top-down stream starts with everything you know about the world, all your best heuristics, all your priors, everything that’s ever happened to you beforeeverything from “solid objects can’t pass through one another” to “e=mc^2” to “that guy in the blue uniform is probably a policeman”. It uses its knowledge of concepts to make predictionsnot in the form of verbal statements, but in the form of expected sense data. It makes some guesses about what you’re going to see, hear, and feel next, and asks “Like this?”

The two streams meet in the middle and compare notes. If the top-down prediction clashes strongly with the raw data, an alarm bell goes off, and some precious attention is directed into reconciling the two views. Then the new information travels back up through the layers, and the brain updates its predictions accordingly.

Obviously you want your brain to update itself when it makes incorrect predictions about the world. This is called ‘learning’. So far, so normal.

The Map is Not the Territory

The law of attraction: The map is not the territory, and this is not a pipe
Bill Smith/CC 2.0

The freaky thing is that this also happens in reverse. If the two streams disagree, but the clash is not sufficiently jarring, the signal travels downwards through the layers and overrules the sensory data. Nothing to see here folks; move along!

The brain is quite happy to ignore reality as long as the prediction generally ‘works’ for its purposes. It’s like a shonky social scientist, with no qualms about forcing the the data to fit its predictions, because it’s all for the greater good.

Also like social science, these deceptions are not rare and isolated events. Your brain is ‘lying’ to you right now: As your eyes dart around on the page, everything should be blurry or glitchy. Instead, the brain strongly predicts that you’ll see a smoothly rendered, 3D world, with no blind spot, and a full spectrum of color, and so… you do (there is a very cool tweet thread explaining this here; time travel is involved).

Reality, as we perceive it, is not ‘real’. It’s a controlled hallucination. Another way of saying this is that the map is not the same thing as the territory. A physical map— lines and squiggles on a bit of paper—is a woefully inaccurate representation of the squillions of atoms that make up the actual, real-life territory that is California. But you can’t fold up California and put it in your glove compartment.2

And so, our filters run up and down and test their predictions, and pattern-match like crazy, and impose a map over the chaos, and give us some nice rose-tinted sunglasses to wear so we can gaze upon the mandala without losing our minds.

You can’t turn off your lying eyes and see like a newborn again, but here’s an example you can test right now: watch the video below, and concentrate on the players in white passing the basketball.





Did you see the gorilla strolling through the game? Probably you did, because you’ve heard of this trick before, but I bet you didn’t notice the the curtain . Somewhere in the bottom-up stream, one lonely brain cell is bringing this to your attention; but your top-down stream has extremely good reason to believe that curtains don’t spontaneously change color, and that gorillas don’t play basketball, so it decides your bottom-up stream has been hitting the sauce again, and ignores its protests.

See also: every optical illusion ever, or the the fact that I’ve written the word ‘the’ twice in a row seven times throughout this essay, including in this sentence, and you probably didn’t notice a single time.3

I still can’t get over how weird this is. I think I am telling my fingers to type this sentence. But it would be more accurate to say that my brain made a prediction with extremely high confidence that my fingers would move, and then the bottom-up layers hustled like crazy to make sure the prediction came true. I shit you not: apparently the generally agreed-upon explanation of motor control is that your body moves because it believes it will.

Is the Law of Attraction Real?

The predictive processing model gives us a pretty tempting explanation for how the Law of Attraction/affirmations might actually work. Perhaps you’re priming your brain to start filtering for opportunities that were already there, but lost in the 99.9995 per cent of things you don’t consciously pay attention to?

Everyone has had an experience like this: you buy a new car, and start seeing the same model everywhere (which leads to much confusion in parking lots, and at least one instance of accidental grand theft auto). You learn an obscure new word or concept, and it pops up three times in the same week. Of course, it was there all along. Your brain is just updating its predictions of what it should bring to your attention.

Maybe you can you seed your top-down layers into paying more attention to any big sacks of money that might happen to be laying around the place? Metaphorically speaking, anyway—you’ll be thinking about getting rich all the time, so you’ll surely spot any lucrative opportunities.

… but there still has to be something there.

Practicing affirmations is like going through life whispering ‘gorilla, gorilla, gorilla’ under your breath. You’ll definitely see the gorilla, but only if there’s a gorilla playing basketball in the first place. Thinking about gorillas is not going to trigger a tornado to pluck one up from the mists of the Congo and insert it into your weekend pickup game down at the YMCA. And so, there is probably no-one offering you a better job, or a useful side-hustle, or a thrilling romance, or a $20 note laying on the pavement that you just haven’t spotted yet.

This seems to me like a categorical difference to an optical illusion, or an extra ‘the’, or noticing a certain model of car: this is you failing to pick up on something that will obviously improve your life. Evolution doesn’t leave low-hanging fruit on the tree; adaption gonna adapt. If a gorilla-sized opportunity existed, you would already have spotted it.

Alternate Explanation 1: Mental Gorillas

the law of attraction alternate explanation 1: mental gorillas
there is no need to be upset

There are two ways I can see the Law of Attraction-style stuff maybe actually working.4

The first is for coming up with new ideas, or solving specific, actionable problems that don’t require any change in the external world. The gorilla doesn’t need to be real, it just has to be floating around in your head somewhere. One example I came across was someone who repeated to himself: “I want to design a color picker for HDR colors.”

Apparently, folks like Thomas Edison and Josh Waitzkin deliberately ‘seed’ their unconscious with an idea or problem so it can percolate while they sleep. If the thing you want is already inside you, maybe constantly reminding your filters to pay more attention to gorilla-shaped ideas helps to bring them closer to the surface.

Prediction 1: The Law of Attraction/affirmations might be a useful tool for generating ideas, and solving specific creative or intellectual problems.

Alternate Explanation 2: Conor McGregor’s Superpower

Conor McGregor believes the law of attraction is real, because it helped him find a carpark closer to the store
the world’s most elite athlete celebrates YET ANOTHER victory in his fight to avoid the ignominy of having to walk an extra minute from a more distant park

Conor McGregor is a fan of the Law of Attraction, because it helped him find a parking space near the front of the store. My guess is that once he’d set the goal, he couldn’t help but take more notice of all the times he found a space, and filter out those he didn’t as failing to match the prediction. Probably he became more alert to spotting free spaces too, or unconsciously started shopping at different hours or less crowded malls to maximize his chances.

McGregor now hallucinates that he has a mysterious ability to find empty parking spaces, and that makes him happy. The remarkable thing is that this is not just the consequence of being punched in the head too many times.

We’re all subject to confirmation bias, which means we tend to notice things that match our pre-existing beliefs and discard things that don’t fit the pattern. Maybe, like McGregor, we can bend it to work in our favor. If you can ‘seed’ the top-down layers with new beliefs, you can change the channel to a more pleasant hallucination, even if the underlying reality is unmoved.

The most parsimonious explanation of the Law of Attraction is that it generates an increase in raw optimism. The specific requests you’re making of the universe probably don’t actually matter. If you believe you will be lucky/rich/famous, you’ll start to notice minor events which would have happened anyway, but you might otherwise have ignored or immediately forgotten: someone lets you into a queue of traffic, you get a minor compliment from your boss, etc.

Eventually you believe that the universe has totally got your back, bro. Nothing has actually changed, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe you work a little bit harder, and have a bit more energy, and become a bit more likeable in the eyes of your colleagues and friends, and more confident on that sales call, and so, your real-world performance actually improves too.

You don’t suddenly spot a big bag of cash, but you’re picking up pennies all the time. Those pennies accumulate and compound—and we know how powerful compound interest is—until eventually, you do get that promotion, or the date with your dream girl, or the Manolo Blahniks you’ve been coveting. The universe has delivered!

Sugar Pills and Useful Lies

Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that you should read these sort of self-help books metaphorically, and ignore all the stuff about the vibrations in the ether. In this sense, Think and Grow Rich is a ‘useful lie’. The core message is nonsense, but if you can manage to convince yourself it’s true, it will genuinely improve your life. Placebos can be good medicine, even if you know they’re only sugar pills… right?

That’s what I thought before I started writing this article. Everyone knows this kind of thing is crazy powerful: I just finished a book by the celebrated physician Gabor Maté, arguing that patterns of thought predispose people to cancer and autoimmune diseases. Then there are all the stories about voodoo, where people drop dead or get horribly ill because they’re convinced they’ve been cursed, or the guy who overdosed after swallowing a bottle of placebo pills, thinking they were antidepressants.5

Everyone has a story about the placebo effect; everyone knows how powerful the unconscious mind is, and…everyone is quite possibly confused?

“Placebos have no meaningful therapeutic worth”, says Wikipedia. You can fool yourself for fuzzy things like pain, and alter your subjective experience, but placebos don’t have any actual healing power, says Scott Alexander.

Studies show that people who take a placebo, do indeed get better. But sick people normally get better anyway. This is one of those things that seems blindingly obvious in retrospect, but apparently no-one thought of until recently. I guess we just unconsciously wanted it to be true.

Voodoo Psychology

Voodoo psychology: basically the modern-day equivalent of the evil eye
Anton Van Straaten (CC2.0)

Have you heard how reading a list of words associated with the elderly causes people to walk more slowly down the hallway? Or reminding minority kids they’re minorities makes them perform worse on tests?

This cluster of effects, based on the premise that our beliefs and unconscious mind affect our real-world outcomes, is what Scott Alexander calls ‘voodoo psychology’.

Some beliefs will hurt you: the implicit associations test and stereotype threat are basically the modern science-y equivalent of ‘the evil eye’. Other beliefs will help you: growth mindset, power poses, and positive priming are the modern science-y equivalent of magical amulets.

This sort of research has generated many best-selling books and TED talks, and given a lot of much-needed credibility to the self-help industry’s fixation on controlling thoughts and beliefs.

But the replication crisis has not been kind to voodoo psychology: Being primed with old-people-words doesn’t make you walk any slower. Power poses don’t do anything except make you look a bit silly. Growth mindset is extremely confusing, but falls well short of the hype. Replications of the facial feedback hypothesis have not given us reason to smile. The implicit association test doesn’t predict real-world behavior, as even its creators eventually admitted. Stereotype threat is under threat.

This is all yet to be resolved, of course. But we have a bunch of effects which rely on priming the unconscious, either negatively or positively, looking increasingly shaky.

Under the predictive processing model, it wouldn’t be surprising if the unconscious was not as powerful as we thought. You know what would be surprising? If a few suggestive whispers or minor physiological cues were enough to brute-force the brain into updating its beliefs, instead of using the strong priors it has built up over decades of careful filtering.

Then there’s that inescapable evolutionary argument again: If placebos and voodoo were powerful enough to shape our fortunes, they’d surely be baked into us already. Dame Nature rarely misses a trick.

And so, I’m going go out on a limb and say that it seems unlikely you can cure cancer, get fabulously rich, adopt a growth mindset, or become more optimistic simply by scrunching up your face really hard and hoping it seeps into your unconscious.

Prediction 2: The Law of Attraction/affirmations has little effect, and probably no effect, on external life outcomes.

The Outrageous Benefits of Optimism

It’s a shame that the Law of Attraction probably doesn’t work, because being a Pollyanna is awesome: optimists are, on average, happier, healthier, more likable, have better jobs, better relationships, etc.

The self-help crowd are also on the right track that we should essentially try and delude ourselves about the nature of reality. This is not as crazy as it sounds, in the sense that everyone already does it all the time.

Most people think they’re better-than-average across all sorts of different domains, which is a statistical impossibility.6 Half of all marriages fail, but we walk down the aisle confident that only applies to other people. We are outrageously overconfident about our own knowledge, the accuracy of our predictions, and our chances of success. This in spite of all evidence to the contrary: the rule is to expect jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, even though there’s never any jam today.

From this perspective, mildly depressed people are the normal ones. Their rose-tinted glasses have slipped down their noses, so they see the world a little more closely to how it really is. As Neel Burton put it, depression could perhaps be redefined as “the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning, and that modern society is absurd and alienating”.

A little bit of self-delusion seems to be a crucial survival mechanism. If only there was some way we really could brute-force our top-down layers into changing our hallucination…

Learned Optimism

It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than it is to think your way into a new way of acting.”

—Millard Fuller

Good news! You totally can train yourself to become an optimist, although the operative word here is ‘train’. When it comes to updating your brain, it seems like there’s a crucial distinction between unconscious beliefs, and unconscious skills.7

Just telling yourself you’re a positive person is not going to do anything in particular. But with enough deliberate practice, you can slowly update your predictions over time.

There’s a useful clue in athletics, where the research suggests that visualizing a motor pattern actually works very well indeed. Are you more likely to become a good tennis player by believing really hard that you’re a good tennis player, or by running through specific, actionable cues and patterns, over and over again?

Here’s a crazy example from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Flow:

A pilot was imprisoned in Vietnam for many years. When he was released – 80 pounds underweight – one of the first things he asked for was to play a game of golf. To the astonishment of his fellow officers he played a superb game, despite his emaciated condition. To their enquiries he replied that every day he imagined himself playing eighteen holes, carefully choosing his clubs and approach and systematically varying the course.

With enough deliberate practice, you can eventually let the automatic system take over and do its thing. Athletes don’t consciously calculate trajectories or work through the 17 different cues one by one. When it’s time to hit the ball, they trust in their training, and let the monkey mind do what it does best.

Apparently, cognitive skills are no different. There’s another clue in the title of Martin Seligman’s book: Learned Optimism. Your top-down layers update their predictions when they learn something.

And so, becoming an optimist mostly involves work, and deliberate practice: You have to fill in boring CBT-style workbooks, and do exercises to help you interpret and change your unhelpful thought patterns. Over time, you can start to rewire your brain. You no longer have to sit down and analyse every scenario; you get better and better at finding that gap between stimulus and response, until it becomes unconscious.

Other well-documented strategies for becoming more optimistic similarly involve the mundane drudgery of actual effort: keeping a gratitude diary, setting and achieving small goals until they become ‘success spirals’, for example.

Seligman, who probably knows more about this stuff than anyone, concludes that optimists are happy not because of who they are, but because of how they act.

Prediction 3: Deliberate practice (e.g. Seligman’s ABCDE model, success spirals) will have a significantly stronger effect on external outcomes than Law of Attraction-style affirmations.

The Perils of Fetishizing Positive Thinking

I’m not a big fan of those inspirational quote poster things that do the rounds on Instagram and Facebook. Here’s my attempt at making one:

The ugly flipside of the law of attraction
this syrian refugee, who cannot feed his kids, clearly wasn’t putting out enough #positivevibes into the universe

…I don’t think it’s going to get many likes.

If you think positive thoughts, sure, your life might improve in a modest but noticeable way. If you are unusually lucky, it will improve in a dramatic way. If you are unusually unlucky, you will still die poor or alone or in a warzone. Even if you successfully manage to hijack your top-down processing, there’s no guarantee the bottom-up (i.e. the universe) will come to the party.

My problem with The Secret and affirmations (and growth mindset, to a lesser extent) is not so much the woo, but what it implies: If you’re in control of your destiny, the ugly flipside is that everyone gets what they deserve. Oh, you failed your term paper? Must not have had the right mindset. Oh, you got cancer? Probably because you’re such a sadsack. Couldn’t have had anything to do with plain bad luck, or your genes, or a random mutation.

I wish I was strawmanning, but I don’t think I am. Here’s Napoleon Hill:

If you are one of those who believe that hard work and honesty, alone, will bring riches, perish the thought! It is not true! Riches, when they come in huge quantities, are never the result of HARD work! Riches come, if they come at all, in response to definite demands, based upon the application of definite principles, and not by chance or luck.

Hills’s proteges have taken this idea and uh, really run with it. The Secret author Rhonda Byrne says “illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts”. If you’re poor, or you get sick, it’s your own fault (also, be careful not to hang around sick people, or even speak to them on the phone, lest their bad vibes rub off on you). Incredibly, even people who die in disasters and terrorist attacks may have themselves to blame: after all, their thoughts “hit the same frequency as the event”.

Positive-thinking guru Bob Proctor, during a 2007 ABC interview, goes one better:

Nightline: “Children in Darfur are starving to death… have they attracted that starvation to themselves?”
Proctor: “I, I, I think the country probably has…”

This kind of thing is next-level bonkers, right up there with ‘the gays caused Hurricane Katrina’. It’s a stupid and dangerous meme to spread, because of course no-one gets what they deserve. The only evidence of this you need: One Napoleon Hill, who sold a lie to 70 million people, got away with it, and is still revered today.

See also: the current president of the United States, with whom there are many fascinating parallels.8

Optimism Gone Wild

At least the growth mindset folks usually make the necessary caveats about luck and innate talent. But even if you set aside victim-blaming, the benefits of positive thinking are not boundless.

After the initial great wave of research on the benefits on optimism, the pendulum has swung back a little. If I’m reading it right, it seems like the good oil is in reducing pessimism, rather than increasing optimism.

Too much optimism leads to narcissism, complacency, and risk-taking. For example, the mere act of thinking about the great things you’re going to achieve gives you a little hit of pleasure and satisfaction. This can actually reduce motivation, because you’re giving yourself the rewards before you’ve so much as lifted a finger.

It also makes you overconfident in areas in which you are already way too overconfident: finances, assessing risk, the future in general. Under the Think and Grow Rich model, you don’t have to care about, say, being careful with money, because the universe will always provide you with GREAT RICHES. A little bit of self-delusion is helpful; too much just means you’re, well, delusional.

These newer findings have not yet permeated the self-help world, and probably never will. (Stay tuned for my upcoming bestseller: Believe in Yourself, But Not Too Much: And Also By the Way, Success is Mostly Genetics and Luck)

Prediction 4: Pessimists will see the strongest benefits from deliberate practice.

Prediction 5: Going too far above the ‘normal’ optimism level is likely to do more harm than good.9

What we really need is a useful tension between the two mindsets.

Optimism is the only way of dealing with the utter absurdity of striving for meaning in an inherently meaningless universe. It helps you tune out some of the inconvenient bottom-up data, and be wildly overconfident enough to promise to love another human being until one of you dies, or pilot a thousand tons of metal through traffic at speeds that will maim or kill you with a moment’s inattention, or start a business that will almost certainly fail, or write 5000 word blog posts in the vain hopes that someone will read them all the way to the end.

But pessimism is useful too: it helps you keep the top-down storyteller in check, and stops your hallucinations from wandering too far away from the underlying reality. It’s a bit of a buzzkill, but it stops you from making really stupid mistakes; like getting suckered in by con artists who tell you that all you have to do is think the right thoughts and the universe will provide.

And so, we can add one final prediction to the list, in which I have almost 100 per cent confidence:

Prediction 6: No-one who believes in the Law of Attraction will pay the slightest bit of attention to any of the above.

Further Reading

The Untold Story of Napoleon Hill Matt Novak

American HucksterThere’s no way I could do Matt Novak’s epic investigation justice here. Putting aside all the scams and hustles, Hill’s life was just plain bizarre: he was a member of a cult trying to make an “immortal baby”, capitalized on the assassination of a journalist to promote his tours, gave lectures to the Ku Klux Klan at one point, and then gave grand jury testimony about their involvement with politicians. It’s an absolute ripper of a yarn, and I hope someone makes it into a movie or something so it becomes more widely-known.

Surfing Uncertainty Review — Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex)

You know a blog post is good when you’re still thinking about it a year later. This layman-friendly explanation of predictive processing was the main inspiration for writing this post. The theory elegantly explains everything from autism, to priming, to schizophrenia, to illusions, to why you can’t tickle yourself, to placebos, to pain tolerance, and everything else in between. See also: Devoodooifying Psychology, and Powerless Placebos, both of which I’ve also drawn upon heavily in this article, and which are well worth reading in full.

Learned Optimism — Martin Seligman

Learned OptimismSeligman is the granddaddy of positive psychology; a field born of the realization that ‘hey, maybe there’s more to this psychology thing than coming up with more disorders to add to the bulging DSM?’

This book is about instilling optimism as a life skill, outlining how it correlates with success in everything from health and the immune system to sales to politics, etc. It’s a bit boring at times, but really useful, especially the CBT-style techniques for changing your modes of thinking.

The most interesting section tackles the question of why there’s an unprecedented epidemic of depression in an age of unrivaled prosperity. Seligman puts it down to the rise of extreme individualism and the simultaneous decline of communal institutions like the patriotic nation-state, God, and the family, which has left people missing the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. He has some tentative ideas for filling the existential void – gratitude, altruism, self-deprivation – but doesn’t get too deep, which in fairness would require a whole series of books.


  1. See ‘The Untold Story of Napoleon Hill’ in the recommended reading list.
  2. “The map is not the territory” was coined by mathematician Alfred Korzybski, and is a very handy little saying. The California analogy comes from Eliezer Yudkowsky, in The Fallacies of Compression.
  3. I stole this trick from Scott Alexander, who has used it over and over again, and I’ve never once been able to catch it in advance. It is an especially good example because the brain’s decision to distort reality is not a mistake here: it makes perfect sense to filter out a short repeating word rather than interrupt you with an alarm klaxon every time.
  4. Actually, there’s probably a third way: social contagion. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, hanging out with optimistic people makes you more optimistic, being around fatter people makes you fatter, etc. This is a bit of a distraction from the main point of what was already a monstrous article, but it might be an interesting post for another time.
  5. The way I heard the story, the guy was on the brink of death until doctors finally convinced him he’d only taken sugar pills. In fact, he had an elevated heart rate (110bpm) and low blood pressure. My pulse routinely stays in this range for several hours a day in hot climates with some mild exertion, so this doesn’t strike me as particularly amazing. Similarly, all the stories about someone dying after having a voodoo curse turn out to be urban legends, or greatly exaggerated. Presumably the ‘nocebo’ exists in the same way as the placebo does: it has an effect on fuzzy low-bandwidth things like pain and subjective experience, but doesn’t actually give you cancer or make you drop down dead.
  6. Unless there are some incredibly bad outliers dragging down the average, in which case it would be justified. But you know what I mean.
  7. This distinction was suggested by commenter ‘hnau’ on SSC.
  8. The fake university, the making and losing of fortunes, the constant lies, and above all, the innate understanding that perception is reality. This may not be a coincidence: Donald Trump’s pastor as a child was Norman Peale; a Napoleon Hill fanboy who wrote his own book on the power of positive thinking. Trump: “You always, when the service was over, you said, ‘I’d have sat there for another hour’. There aren’t too many people like that. It wasn’t the speaking ability, it was the thought process.” I’m not saying Napoleon Hill is to blame for the rise of Donald Trump… but I’m not not saying it.
  9. You can find out your baseline level of optimism here.

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Suzanne Marie Shealy
Suzanne Marie Shealy
4 years ago

I am so glad I finally read a review that puts Napoleon Hill in the right light. He was a con man, narcissist and basically believed thru delusional positive self love, riches will come to you. This is one of the most ridiculous books that I have read and the only reason why I did was because I trying to figure out what was going on in my 20 year old sons delusional mind. He is OBSESSED (all caps 😉 with NH and this book claiming he is his own God and not masturbating in order to achieve infinite intelligence. A bunch of crap. Thank you!

4 years ago

Stumbled on your blog yesterday. Some great, no bullshit stuff in there.

5 years ago

Great Post mate. Reminds of one of Mark Manson’s post “The staggering bullshit of The Secret.”

5 years ago

I have a simpler theory of why self-help can work (when/if in fact it does ). It works on the
truism that the hardest part of many efforts is getting started. Basically, reading/(consuming)
self-help talk before starting something ‘greases the wheels’ for the extra effort needed to start
something. The fact that the good-feel wears off in a week or 2 matters less, once you’ve started.

This is how I use self-help literature .. I don’t think the actual content of the self-help
literature or method actualy matters that much. This allows me to use a wide variety of stuff
where I can just instinctively filter-out the ‘woo’/silliness almost to the point where I dont
even remember it being there.

I suppose the ‘feel-good’ effect may make some people complacent and NOT get started , but I find
personally it works the other way more often than not.

A more detailed explanation I think is that if you invest a certain extended amount of time where
your brain is going over your goals and actions needed to acheive them, it ‘locks ‘ something in
and makes it more likely that you will act. How this is different from ‘priming’ (which I guess the
literature now says doensn’t really work) , I’m not sure.

Dave Room
5 years ago

Thanks Richard!

I made it to the end. Thanks. This post connected some dots for me. I appreciated that you sorted out what of the optimistic mindset actually does work. Nice to better to understand what I’ve been experiencing.

My north star is to live the story I want to tell. Would love to hear your offhand response to that mindset.

5 years ago

I read to the end, vain hope fulfilled by at least 1! The Neel Burton quote about depression really hit home for me, puts into words what I have been experiencing lately, and somehow makes it more bearable. Even though I only caught 2 of your usages of ‘the the’ and 1 ‘can can’, my first thought was, this is such a long post, maybe he didn’t have time to properly proof read before publishing. I should have known it was deliberate and wondered what you were moving towards. Thanks for the good read!

(ironically I did not proofread my own post, as I misspelled my own name. New pseudonym I suppose)

5 years ago

This is such an interesting post! I got diverted and read the article on Napoleon Hill halfway through and that was fascinating too.

It is so well researched and thoughtful and easier to digest than Scott Alexander 🙂

I have always had an interest in belief and religion – and used to read a lot of “self help” and positive thinking books. They did help in a way when I was young. I read Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends an influence people when I was 12 and it helped me through my teenage years. But after reading quite a few of these books I have seen some patterns and slightly off the wall ideas mixed in with more mainstream beliefs.

I didn’t know much about Napoleon Hill, especially his influence on Norman Vincent Peale (the Trump connection just blows my mind!). I found Think and Grow Rich a bit difficult to read but will go back to it now!

However, I have found one interesting connection that links Louise Hay, Deepak Chopra, James Redfield and others – they have a connection to a cult or belief system that calls itself “Gnostic Christianity”. There is a book called “A course in Miracles” which the writer claims was revealed to her by Jesus in the 70s.

You are probably done with your investigation into the topic now but it is interesting when you know that to see how it influences their books and ideas.


5 years ago

Every time someone mentions the whole “seeing cars the same as yours” thing, I am reminded of “The Coincidence Engine” by Sam Leith. Not life-changing, but a neat read.