Does Manifestation Work?

Have you ever heard someone say something along the lines of, “if you want something in life, all you have to do is think about it, visualize it, believe you can have it, and you will?” 

This is called manifestation, or the law of attraction. It’s the idea that we can transform our  abstract intangible thoughts, wishes and deepest desires into reality through the power of imagination. Is there any truth to this ideology or is it just a misleading ruse that’s dangerous for us to promote to the public, particularly, young people? 

The Secret, which may ring a bell, was one of the first of a stream of self-help books espousing ideas of this nature. But 15 years ago, at the time of The Secret’s release, the idea of manifestation was still widely regarded by the public as another quasi-spiritual celebrity fad which should be taken with a grain of salt. Today however, in the age of TikTok and in the midst of this digital boom we’re experiencing, the public’s general consensus on the matter isn’t as clear. A recent 2022 survey of 2,300 Americans showed that 65% of them reportedly have attempted to manifest something in their lives. Four out of the 10 participants learned about manifestation online, and nearly 1 in 3 of them said they have viewed manifestation TikToks.

Today, there are more than 234,000 members of Reddit’s Law of Attraction forum, a number that grew 39% between January 2021 and January 2022. The hashtag #manifestation on TikTok currently has 19.2 billion video results. And it’s not surprising to see why. Just coming out of a pandemic people are becoming desperate for any sort of good fortune. So when people online sell stories of how merely thinking about something brought them great success, it’s easy to see how millions of people become invested in the ideaology. After all, what do they stand to lose?

In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and on the 15th anniversary of The Secret’s publication, Jessica Wildfire wrote that the book, and the movement it created, “had given people license to focus only on their selfish, personal desires instead of doing the hard, thankless work it takes to actually improve the world.” And, surprisingly enough, there is quite a bit of psychological research to support the idea that the act of manifestation, or positive visualizations, can actually lead to complacency rather than action. 

Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University, conducted a series of experiments in which she gathered undergraduate students and randomly assigned them into two groups. She asked the first group to visualize the most positive version of their upcoming week, acing tests, going to incredible parties and feeling on top of the world. Then, she asked the second group to visualize a neutral, realistic version of their upcoming week, including good and bad moments.

The results of her studies shockingly demonstrated that the students who visualized positive experiences only felt a lot less motivated and energized afterward than the group who visualized neutral experiences. This showed  that positive visualizations, although satisfying in the moment, can create a sense of relaxation complacencyThis is because the act of visualizing positive results can trick the mind into believing that the hard work of achieving said results has already been done, thus short-circuiting motivation. Here’s one thing we do have to keep in mind. Although the act of visualizing said positive outcomes didn’t serve as motivation for the students to actually pursue those outcomes, it was still satisfying in the moment, which in and of itself is still worth something that we cannot discard. But the criticism of manifestation doesn't end there. Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, is another avid critic of the idea. 

To paraphrase Manson, manifestation is just a candied-up version of the confirmation bias, a psychological phenomenon that describes a person’s need to look for or interpret only information that is consistent with their personal beliefs. For example, let’s say you're thinking about buying a red Jeep. All of a sudden every other car you see on the road is a red Jeep. It’s not that you are seeing more red Jeeps now than before you were thinking about buying one, just that your brain has formulated a bias toward them, and thus you are noticing them more now, thus confirming said bias. The repercussions of enforcing confirmation bias on a large scale are pretty obvious. In a world that is already so politically and socially polarized, the last thing we need is more fuel for people to pigeon-hole themselves into their own singular identities. Even beyond that concerning potential, another issue that the idea of manifestation can enforce on a large scale level, according to Manson, is that it can encourage people to become delusionally positive since it puts the weight of the entire Universe behind all of our actions and outcomes in the world. Consider this. Say you are planning on going on a hike in a mountain range area that you aren’t very familiar with. Leading up to the hike, you’re envisioning yourself having an amazing time in nature, soaking up the Sun and feeling at peace with the elements. You spend so much time visualizing, or manifesting, a positive experience that you don’t foresee that you should pack a water supply, some food, proper emergency equipment and a map or two, all in case the trip doesn’t go as positively as you have manifested that it would. Because, after all, admitting to yourself that the trip may not turn out to be as positive as you planned would go directly against everything that manifestation preaches. 

So, you neglect the proper preparation and, lo and behold, you get lost on the mountain. As you stand there alone, staring at the soon-to-be-setting Sun, it dawns on you that by failing to see this coming you didn’t just let yourself down, but the entire Universe let you down as well, because your positive manifestations weren’t enough to prevent this from happening. This example is pretty extreme, and I'm not trying to suggest that everyone who believes in manifestation will take the idea so far as to completely neglect practical reality like this. But, I think it’s important to acknowledge the worst possible usage of an idea so we can understand the full range of potential that we’re dealing with.

You could also imagine the situation in reverse. You’re preparing for a hike again, but this time you’re so anxious about the upcoming experience that all you can envision for yourself is danger, negativity and an overwhelming feeling of dread. The chances that you would even make it to the hike in the first place with this mindset are pretty low, and even lower are the chances that you would be able to have a good time when you get there with all the worry that’s flooding your brain. This means that while delusional positivity is not the best way to go, absolute negativity isn’t a much better option either. With that said, where is the happy medium between these two extremes? We know our minds play a role in shaping our outer realities, for it is our minds that dictate the physical actions we take in the world in the first place. But how far does the power of our minds go? 

Is there some intangible, mystical element at play in between our thoughts and our outcomes? Or is what we see exactly what we get? Most critics of manifestation would argue that anything quote-on-quote “mystical” which occurs in between our internal and external realities could be logically explained with a more in-depth examination of the cause and effect nature that exists between our actions and outcomes. But that doesn’t do much to explain the impact that our thoughts and mindsets have on our unconscious minds.

Take the placebo effect for example, a psychological phenomenon which posits that a person’s physical health can improve after taking a placebo or ‘dummy’ treatment as long as the person believes that the treatment is real. This phenomenon has been studied in great depth and is probably the most widely known body of research on the role the mind plays in shaping our reality. It is these intriguing discoveries on the placebo effect which inspired Alia Crum, a psychologist and principal investigator of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab, to dedicate her entire career studying the ways in which changes in our subjective mindsets can alter our objective realities. Crum says, “It’s essential to recognize that mindsets are not peripheral, but central to health and behavior.If we truly want to tackle the diseases and crises of our time, we need to more effectively acknowledge and leverage the power of mindset.”

Although the ideas of mindset and manifestation are not entirely the same, they share a significant overlap. Gaining an understanding of the roles that our mindset plays on our external realities adds a lot of context to our understanding of the ideas of manifestation and the law of attraction. Carol Dweck is a self-help author whose book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explores this very concept of mindset and the role it plays in shaping our lives, in extraordinary depth. Carol identifies two broad and distinct mindset categories that people operate under the assumption of, whether they are conscious of it or not. She calls these categories the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. 

A person with a fixed mindset, to put it simply, believes that their qualities are unchangeable, or fixed, and that there is not much of anything they can do to improve their inherent traits. They believe that they were born with a certain level of intelligence, a certain ability to be creative, a certain type of personality and that there is little to no wiggle room within these static metrics. Operating under this mindset leaves you feeling the need to perpetually prove to yourself and others that you are intelligent, athletic and gifted enough. In the fixed mind, there is this imaginary have or have not system that you constantly need to measure yourself against, making every task a question of do I or don’t I? Am I or am I not? Can I or can’t I?

Contrary to this is what Carol defines as the growth mindset. The hand you’re dealt is simply just the starting point of your abilities and a point that you have the power to improve upon through your efforts and willpower. In the growth mindset, failure can be painful, but it doesn’t define you or re-write anything about your innate ability to be successful or worthy. She writes that failure to a growth-oriented person is “a problem to be faced, dealt with and learned from.”

These two opposing mindsets have a tremendous ripple effect on the desires, motivations, decisions and ultimate actions of the person who holds them. Think about it. If you don’t believe you have the ability to increase your intelligence enough to go and get your masters degree, then what are the odds you’ll even consider trying in the first place? Within this framework that Carol Dweck has constructed, the concept of mindset becomes a bit more digestible and certainly more clinically provable than the illusory concepts of manifestation. And of course, at the end of the day, although they share a wide overlap, the ideas of mindset and manifestation are not the same entirely.

Hardcore manifestors are taking the idea of mindset a step further than what science tells us. These manifesters assert that there is a mysterious, X-factor in between our minds and our bodies, our thoughts and our actions, our internal and our external. They’re suggesting that there’s a touch of the divine at play in between us asking and receiving something that we want. Is there any scientific research to back this up, you might ask? Well, no. The idea currently falls within that realm of our existence that we may never fully understand. But, there are some scientific leads which add a lot of texture to the idea. 

Author and researcher Masaru Emoto conducted a series of studies on water at critical points of freezing. Amazingly, he found that words expressing emotions have an effect on the molecular structure of the water crystals. His studies showed that when water molecules were spoken to with positive and uplifting words, they would freeze in a more aesthetically pleasing pattern than when it was spoken to with harsh or condemning words. Emoto’s claims certainly become more compelling when you pair them with the realization that our bodies are made up of anywhere between 50 to 80 percent water and that the Earth’s surface is composed of 71% water. Emoto’s methods have received criticism from other researchers who’ve said that his experiments didn’t vet rigorously enough against human error and that he withheld too much of his process from the scientific community. So, to be honest, we cannot base our entire ideology on just this one study. Yet, it provides us with something to think about. If these findings were to be true and our thoughts, words and intentions do have a provable effect on the molecular structures of water, what would that mean for the idea of manifestation? For now, we might never know. 

Us humans living today have access to more things than any other humans in the history of our species. We have the world’s information and all the entertainment we could ask for at our fingertips. We purchase things from halfway across the world and want them on our front doors in two days. Every company in the world competes for our attention, so we’re constantly being fed with everything our minds could ever think of, and as quickly as possible too. 

Considering this, it’s no wonder that the ideas of manifestation and the law of attraction are culturally on the rise as they fit in perfectly with this idea that we deserve whatever we want, whenever we want it. Yet despite all of this, I don’t think the concept of manifestation is an inherently harmful one. At best, when taken with a grain of salt and blended with a good work ethic, I think the belief that the mind plays a role in creating our reality has the potential to have an uplifting effect on a person.

On the flip side, though, I can see how manifestation can become misleading for people who either aren’t able to take it with a grain of salt or who are receiving this information from faulty, online influencers who are trying to disguise pseudoscience as science; fiction as fact, dreams as reality.  Because the truth is, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.