Dangerous Trends in Personal Development

personal development

There is an ongoing trend in personal development that seems to ignore the consequences of reality and instead focus on wishful-thinking and excessive optimism. Although I am certainly not the first to criticize works like “What The Bleep Do We Know?,” “The Secret,” or “The Law of Attraction” – I believe there is real damage being done by fostering these unhealthy beliefs, and people who know better have a duty to dispel these myths.

I hate to sound a bit cynical this morning, but there have been some ongoing trends within the personal development community that really rub me the wrong way.

“Personal Development” suffers enough negative connotations as it is, and it only exacerbates the problem when other so-called “experts” and “gurus” continue to spread dangerous lies and superstitions.

The main culprit: The observer effect.

In essence, “documentaries” like What The Bleep Do We Know? have described the observer effect (in quantum physics) as evidence that our minds are the sole creators of reality.

Now, I’m no physicist (and neither are most of the people in the personal development community who cite this research), but the observer effect basically describes how we can’t observe an electron without changing it’s behavior.

However, it has nothing to do with consciousness.

What The Bleep Do We Know? claims this is an effect of consciousness on reality, but this isn’t how most physicists explain it. In fact, the reason an electron is difficult to observe is because it needs to interact with a photon in order for it to be detected. A photon is nothing more than a particle of light, and light is necessary in order to detect the positioning of an electron. It has nothing to do with consciousness in-and-of-itself.

According to Wikipedia:

    “Physicists like David Albert, who appear in the film, have accused the filmmakers of selectively editing his interview to make it appear that he endorses the film’s thesis that quantum mechanics is linked with consciousness.”

And as if that wasn’t disingenuous enough, other personal development “experts” have taken this documentary and have wrongly applied it to their own beliefs. Followers of The Secret and The Law of Attraction have taken this misinterpreted evidence to suggest that our minds are all-powerful creators of the reality.

They believe if we can imagine it, and we can desire it, then we can achieve it. Period. Nothing can stand in our way but our own minds.

The real danger of these beliefs.

When people fully adhere to the teachings of something like The Secret, they often fail to acknowledge the realities that exist outside of their minds.

James Arthur Ray, a popular affiliate of The Secret and The Law of Attraction, had a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat in 2009. He had the participants go through very physically demanding tasks such as fasting for over 36 hours and then cramming the 60 participants into a sweat lodge.

Although participants had a big breakfast before the sweat lodge, one site owner reported that participants had went 2 days without water leading up to the event. The goal was to go on a “vision quest” that would teach participants to overcome their fear of death.

The results were much worse.

Ray truly believed that the power of thought and intention would be strong enough to overcome these physical obstacles. So long as he pushed the possibility of anyone getting hurt out of his mind, it would come true. He was wrong.

Instead, two participants died before the exercise was over. Another 18 were hospitalized due to various burns, breathing problems, and dehydration. Another participant died after being comatose for a week due to the event.

Ray was finally convicted earlier this year for 3 cases of neglected homicide.

An alternative approach to personal development – acknowledging reality.

Listen. I’m a big advocate of taking responsibility for your life. But I also acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no good reason. This is because our mind – however positive our thoughts and noble our intentions – is not the only thing that exists in this world.

Instead, there is a whole other reality that exists outside of our minds that affects our lives. And sometimes that reality can be incredibly cruel, harsh, and impersonal.

It’s important to acknowledge this reality for several reasons:

    1. We don’t have to blame ourselves for everything bad that happens in our lives.
    2. By accepting these other facets of reality, we can better respond to them.

I know this isn’t the most positive and optimistic thing you want to hear – but it’s true. And accepting reality is more beneficial in the long-term than ignoring it.

I truly believe that. I’ve been hurt by wishful thinking before, and I’ve become happier and better off once I dimmed my optimism and became a little more practical.

Personal development fueled by science, reason, and honest self-analysis.

I think if the term “personal development” is going to restore any of the integrity it once had, then individuals within the community need to make an earnest effort to distinguish truth from fiction. And there are resources and tools out there to help us do this (that is one of the primary reasons I write on this blog).

To start, paying attention to scientific research in psychology and neuroscience is a good way to stay privy to many of the biases and imperfections that riddle our minds (and there are a lot of them, believe me).

I’ve written before about some of these biases and how they can negatively influence our thoughts and decision-making – these are the kinds of findings we should try to be more mindful of (not pseudo-scientific bastardizations of quantum mechanics).

If you have a choice, I say go with psychotherapies that are supported by scientific research over psychotherapies that depend more on hearsay and anecdotal evidence. Modern therapeutic techniques like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation, and Positive Psychology all have positive track-records in being able to treat various mental ailments. Look into these therapies before seeking alternatives (in fact, a lot of alternative therapies that get recognition today – like Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and acupuncture – can usually be attributed to the placebo effect).

But, above all else, the most important thing is that we remain honest with ourselves. Life isn’t always pleasant or forgiving, but trying to ignore these aspects of reality won’t make them go away. Sometimes we have to grit our teeth and bear it – because the more we ignore it, the harder reality is going to bite back in the end.

Taking a more pragmatic and modest approach to personal development (one fueled by science, reason, and honest self-analysis) is a trend I would like to see more of in the future.


  • Have you ever seen What The Bleep Do We Know? or read The Secret or The Law of Attraction?
  • How did these affect your personal development – was it negative or positive? (try to be specific)
  • What do you think about more scientifically-backed approaches to personal development (like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation, and Positive Psychology)?
  • What are some trends in personal development that worry you?

Be sure to answer these in the comment section below!

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