The Scientific Validity of Manifesting: How to Support Clients

Manifesting“Manifesting” is a big trend in the self-help and success industry.

Because so many people actively try to practice manifesting strategies, it is important for practitioners to understand this belief system and its implications for clients.

Manifesting involves activating the mind–body–spirit connection to bring desires into reality.

Adherents believe that by thinking positive thoughts, feeling positive emotions, and aligning personal energy with that of the universe, they can “manifest” their dreams.

How do you support a client who is a strong advocate of manifestation? Does it have validity? What do the sciences say? And what if those dreams don’t come true?

In this article, we will seek to understand manifestation, investigate sustainable approaches, and look at supportive strategies for clients.

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Understanding Manifestation and the Law of Attraction

Manifesting is rooted in an older idea, the “law of attraction,” according to which our thoughts determine what we attract in life, be that bad or good things, poverty or riches, illness or health, abusive or nourishing relationships.

Manifesters believe that by thinking positive thoughts, feeling positive emotions, practicing “vibrational alignment,” and “acting as if” they have already achieved their dreams, they can achieve tangible success in the real world, especially becoming rich and famous.

The best-known examples of law-of-attraction self-help books are Rhonda Byrne’s (2006/2016) The Secret and Napoleon Hill’s (1937/2007) Think and Grow Rich! You may also have encountered Roxie Nafousi’s (2022) Manifest: 7 Steps to Living Your Best Life, which became an instant international bestseller when it was published.

These and similar books have a huge reach and, therefore, a considerable real-world impact. The Secret (both in book and video form) sold over 30 million copies (Dixon et al., 2023, p. 1), while #manifestation has 49.4 billion views on TikTok, to date.

Manifesters argue for a “mind over matter” doctrine, claiming that our thoughts are omnipotent and have the power to shape the external world. They posit that our thoughts are like magnets, able to attract good or bad things into our lives, depending on the frequency and quality of the kinds of thoughts we send out into the universe.

Proponents often claim that manifesting is based on principles from quantum physics (more on that below). Manifesting also taps into much older spiritual beliefs that are based on the notion that the universe is made up of energy or spirit, and that the material world is an illusion.

This self-help tradition emerged in the final decades of the 19th century. Its beginnings lie in the American “mind cure” movement. Enthusiasts believed that all sickness originates in the mind. Consequently, right thinking has a healing effect. The mind cure thinker Prentice Mulford (1834–1892) set out the principles of the “law of attraction.”

In Thoughts Are Things (1889), Mulford explains that positive thoughts attract positive outcomes and that negative thoughts attract negative ones. William Walker Atkinson (1906) later made similar claims in Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World.

Positive thinking was first popularized by the American pastor Norman Vincent Peale (1952) in The Power of Positive Thinking. It is as influential as it is controversial. Extreme positive thinking has been critically examined by several researchers, who have found that it can be maladaptive; generate false hope, toxic positivity, and unrealistic expectations; and lead to poorer goal attainment (Wood et al., 2009).

A defining feature of manifesting is also its focus on attaining material riches by pseudo-spiritual means. The first self-help author to combine the spiritual idea of the law of attraction with materialist aspirations was Napoleon Hill.

Hill’s (1937/2007) message in Think and Grow Rich! is simple: If we focus strongly on thoughts about money and abundance, the universe will resonate with our subconscious and send riches our way. All we need in order to become rich is to develop a definite desire. Then our thoughts, “like magnets, attract to us the forces, the people, the circumstances of life which harmonize with the nature of our dominating thoughts” (Hill, 1937/2007, p. 21).

It is unsurprising that such a message would have been soothing to readers struggling with the economic fallout of the Great Depression. But this message has remained attractive ever since. The Secret, too, pushes the same message and is filled with stories about unexpected checks in the mail and sudden transformations of personal circumstances.

In psychological terms, we can understand manifesting as a spiritual belief system that impacts decision-making, judgment, self-concept, and behavior.

It is a form of thinking that is based on thought–action fusion, conflations between physical and nonphysical phenomena, delusions of causality and control, a belief in pseudo-scientific forces and karmic justice, blind optimism, and a dramatic overvaluation of our personal agency and power (Dixon et al., 2023).

Criticisms and Limitations of Manifestation

Criticisms of ManifestationAnyone who believes in evidence-based psychological principles will view promises of effortless transformation with suspicion.

It is well known that sustainable change in our inner life and outer circumstances requires effort, time, dedication, practice, reality testing, and perseverance.

Criticisms: False expectations

While reading these kinds of books may make clients feel temporarily hopeful, perhaps even giddily expectant, reality will inevitably catch up. Clients may end up feeling worse, not better, when their promised riches fail to arrive.

Overestimating personal power and underestimating economic and social structures comes at a cost. When things don’t work out as hoped, clients may end up feeling guilt and shame.

Criticisms: Victim blaming

Manifesters hold those who suffer misfortunes personally responsible for their sufferings. Byrne (2016), for example, suggests that all of life’s calamities are caused by our failure to think positive thoughts.

Joe Vitale, one of the experts who contributed to her book, makes it perfectly clear that the rule of the law of attraction also applies to “events in history where masses of lives were lost” (Byrne, 2016, p. 28).

Following that logic, it was the Jews’ fault that they were killed in Nazi concentration camps because their “thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness” attracted them “to being in the wrong place at the wrong time” (Byrne, 2016, p. 28). Vitale sternly asserts, “Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts” (Byrne, 2016, p. 28).

Limitations: Levels of success

Dixon et al. (2023) analyzed the impact of manifesting beliefs in detail. For their study, they created a manifestation scale, measuring the degree to which participants believe in personal power, as evident in positive self-talk, visualization, acting “as if,” and cosmic collaboration (i.e., partnering with supernatural or cosmic higher forces).

They found the following: While manifestation beliefs seem to be self-enhancing, equipping manifesters with a highly positive view of themselves and their chances of success, these beliefs make no impact on their objective levels of success (Dixon et al., 2023).

In other words, the overconfidence and over-optimism of manifesters do not translate into an increase in image, fame, or fortune in the real world. On the contrary, manifesters are “more likely to have a stronger preference for risk-taking, have riskier investments (i.e., cryptocurrency versus traditional stocks)” and are more likely to go bankrupt. “Therefore, there is a risk of negative financial outcomes for those who believe in manifestation” (Dixon et al., 2023, p. 13).

Dixon et al. (2023) also found that manifesters believed they could achieve a level of success, such as earning $300,000 a year or gaining a million fans, quicker than non-manifesters. This overconfidence, the researchers believe, “could leave manifesters vulnerable to believing unrealistic and/or inauthentic claims from the success industry and others who promise unlikely success, such as get-rich-quick schemes” (Dixon et al., 2023, p. 14).

However, there are specific strategies and aspects that are part of the manifestation belief system that have been shown to have positive effects. These include the placebo effect, cultivating an optimistic mindset, gratitude, visualizing, goal setting, and vision boarding. This makes the matter more complex.

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These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques for lasting behavior change.

Common Theories About Manifestation

Many manifesters believe that the practice of manifesting is both rooted in and scientifically proven by quantum theory. Quantum theory is a branch of physics that describes the behavior of matter and energy at the smallest scales, such as atoms, molecules, and subatomic particles (Polkinghorne, 2002).

Advocates of manifesting may, for example, cite the observer effect. In quantum theory, the observer effect refers to how the act of observing or measuring particles at the quantum level can influence their behavior (Polkinghorne, 2002). Some people draw an analogy, suggesting that human consciousness or intention might similarly affect outcomes in the manifesting process. This has never been proven.

Another principle that tends to get cited is quantum entanglement. This phenomenon occurs when pairs or groups of particles become correlated in such a way that the state of one particle is instantaneously connected or dependent on the state of another, regardless of the distance between them. This is seen as proof of the interconnectedness between an individual’s thought and cosmic energy more generally. Sometimes, scientific studies on para-psychological phenomena is cited as support of that argument.

Finally, the uncertainty principle in quantum theory states that certain pairs of properties, such as position and momentum, cannot be precisely known simultaneously (Polkinghorne, 2002). Some teachings liken this to the idea that belief and visualization in manifesting allow for the possibility to create our own reality.

All of these connections are speculative and have not been scientifically supported. Quantum theory has not been conclusively linked to the manifestation of personal desires or thoughts influencing tangible outcomes in the way often suggested by certain teachings or popular beliefs.

The Power of Optimism and Visualization

VisualizationSome ingredients of the manifestation belief system do have positive correlations and outcomes. The problem is that they are embedded in a framework in which claims and expectations become overblown and distorted.

Optimism

There is, for example, plenty of evidence that optimistic thinking is better for us than pessimistic thinking, and positive mindsets and attitudes can, to a certain extent, lead to more success, fewer health and relationship problems, and generally better outcomes in life (Robson, 2022; Oettingen & Reininger, 2016; Snyder et al., 2001).

One of the fathers of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has written extensively on that topic. Seligman (2006) holds that pessimistic thinking and what he calls “learned helplessness” are responsible for various health problems, shorter life spans, worse achievements, and more catastrophes in our lives — in that expecting them to happen can create self-fulfilling prophecies.

  • Folkman and Moskowitz (2000) found that positive emotions play a crucial role in adaptive coping strategies and resilience when dealing with life’s challenges.
  • Luthans et al. (2006) suggest that psychological capital, including optimism, is associated with increased job performance, job satisfaction, and overall work success.
  • Peterson and Bossio (2001) highlight optimism as a crucial factor that influences various aspects of life, including success and wellbeing.
  • Baron (2008) suggests that positive affect, including optimism, can influence an entrepreneur’s ability to navigate challenges and achieve success in their ventures.

All of these studies provide insights into how optimism, as part of positive psychological capital, can impact various aspects of work success, leadership effectiveness, and overall success in different domains.

Visualization

The benefits of visualizing positive aims and desired outcomes in our mind, too, have been extensively researched (Munroe-Chandler & Guerrero, 2017; Ranganathan et al, 2004).

We know that many high-performing athletes, such as the swimmer Michael Phelps, use visualization as part of a training strategy. Phelps’s coach talks about how Phelps swims any race hundreds of times in his head before the actual race. This mental rehearsing allows him to become calm and perform at his peak.

Michael Phelps - The Journey - Visualization

Many other athletes, too, visualize themselves at peak performance. The difference between this and manifesting is that they also train extremely hard, spending most hours of each day honing their skills and improving their game. Visualization is one part of the picture, but, crucially, it is paired with real-life action, learning, and hard-earned growth.

The Secret Imagination of Elite Performers

Other Substantiated Alternative Approaches

It can be helpful to suggest to manifesters more evidence-based concepts and tools that are related to some of the principles they believe in already. In addition to optimism and visualization, these include cultivating a growth mindset, goal setting, and mobilizing the expectation effect.

Growth mindset

Carol Dweck’s (2006) research in her famous book Mindset explores the concept of a growth mindset and its impact on success in different areas of our lives. Dweck demonstrates how a growth mindset leads to greater motivation, resilience, and achievement.

In contrast to passive manifestation, individuals with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can be actively developed through effort and perseverance.

Goal setting

When we are focused on a specific, achievable, and tangible goal, our attention and energy will be concentrated on it. Understood that way, a principle most manifesters believe in holds true: Where our attention goes, our energy flows.

Setting concrete goals is a proven strategy for enhancing motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence, and autonomy (Locke & Latham, 2006). It has also been proven to enhance our chances of success (Nowack, 2017).

Working with the expectation effect

The award-winning science writer David Robson (2022) has written an excellent evidence-based book called The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life.

It is a great alternative to books like The Secret, as it is based on solid and directly applicable psychological research. Robson engages with cutting-edge research that proves how our expectations can shape our experiences. He introduces powerful mental techniques that we can use to improve our health, productivity, and overall wellbeing.

Supporting Clients’ Needs

Good counseling skillsIt is highly unlikely that we can change the minds of believers in manifesting through logical and factual arguments.

Often, manifesting is part of a much more complex and deeply ingrained worldview. Any attempts to mobilize reason are likely to cause defensiveness designed to minimize cognitive dissonance.

If we want to support clients who believe in manifesting but have become disillusioned with it, we must above all understand why the idea of manifesting was attractive to them in the first place. What psychological needs does it satisfy?

Besides an obvious desire for effortless quick-fix solutions to problems, there is also an age-old striving for empowerment and control. Many yearn for omnipotence, invincibility, and mastery over the material world.

Manifestation books are also escapist in spirit, providing hope. They allow anyone to daydream about a different life in which they are successful, rich, desirable, and always socially at ease. Manifesting can also be viewed as what is known as spiritual by-passing.

If we can understand the underlying needs and desires that drive our clients toward believing in manifesting, we can then seek to address these needs in other ways. We can also gently try to redirect clients to more evidence-based tools for achieving their goals, such as the ones discussed above.

Useful Resources From PositivePsychology.com

On our site, there are several relevant and helpful practical articles on science-based alternative techniques that believers in manifesting can benefit from. They include articles on the power of optimism, visualization, growth mindsets, and goal setting.

In addition to these excellent articles, you can also share this Visualize Success worksheet with a client. Similar to athletes visualizing their race, this worksheet helps clients actively build resilience.

In addition, our Creating Realistic Optimism worksheet is a helpful tool that encourages clients to take a realistic look at their circumstances, but with a positive mindset.

Another must-have is this Adopt a Growth Mindset worksheet, which is a valuable tool to encourage clients to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, check out this collection of 17 validated motivation & goal achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.

A Take-Home Message

The dates when bestselling books on manifestation were published and when they resonated with so many readers are telling. Hill’s came out during the Great Depression; Byrne’s, just before the financial crisis.

Nafousi’s book rose to prominence in 2022 — a year marked by the ongoing effects of the COVID pandemic, growing economic uncertainty, a harsh cost-of-living crisis, and the horrors of the Ukraine war.

It seems that manifesting appeals when people feel most out of control and hopeless. Our challenge as practitioners is to offer hope and solace in a more grounded and sustainable way. There are numerous evidence-based psychological strategies that can help us with this task, and they present powerful alternatives to manifesting.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.

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