This article originally appeared on Tonic in the US.
In the self-help-slash-memoir You Are A Badass, Jen Sincero says that she is always able to find an incredible parking spot. Her strategy isn’t to leave early, or to stalk people holding car keys, but to think and believe from the outset that she’s going to get a spot.
“The perfect spot is mine, it already exists and I’m genuinely so happy and grateful for it,” she writes. “I really truly believe this.” Then, just like her thoughts predicted, someone will pull out of the perfect spot exactly when she needs it.
Sincero’s strategy is essentially to “manifest,” the parking spot—to think about it hard enough and will it into existence. Manifesting is not new by any means, but has found a resurgence in the wellness, Instagram-influencer, self-care world. You can find advice on blogs and Instagram accounts on how to manifest an apartment in Paris, an ideal husband, or dream job. There are now several websites where you can print yourself a blank check from the “Universe,” fill in the amount of money you want, and if you “believe and feel that you have the money now,” the money will find its way to you on the date you wrote on the check.
People who espouse manifesting say it works because of the law of attraction which is “the ability to attract into our lives whatever we are focusing on.” The law of attraction is said to have appeared first in an 1877 book by Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky, but was popularized about a decade later by New Thought writers, as part of a movement that emphasized mind-healing through spiritual, religious and metaphysical means.
It has come in and out of vogue since; The Secret was the law of attraction's most recent blockbuster, selling over 30 million copies and translated into 50 languages. Despite its medium, The Law of Attraction’s fundamentals have remained the same. It decrees that “all thoughts turn into things eventually.”
But the law of attraction sounds uncomfortably similar to another concept that many are likely familiar with, even if they don’t know its name: thought-action fusion. Thought-action fusion is a psychological term defined in the mid-1990s for the belief that thoughts and actions are somehow linked together; that thinking something is the same as doing it, or that thoughts alone can cause things to happen—and it’s a risk factor for developing many anxiety disorders, and perpetuating their symptoms.
A person with social anxiety might believe that because they think others are judging them, that makes it true. A person with depression might believe that because they think life isn’t worth living, that extends to reality.
In the therapy sessions that I attend each week for anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, I spend a lot of time learning the opposite lesson: that thoughts do not equal reality. Just because I think that a surface is covered in germs, think that something I’ve done is imperfect, or think something bad will happen—those thoughts do not actually translate to real life.
These are just thoughts, my therapist has taught me to say. They flit around in my mind, uncontrollable and often upsetting, but they are contained there. I can observe them and let them be, and not worry that they’ll leak out through my ears and somehow infiltrate my everyday life.
As the trend of manifesting continues to spread, I find my trusty mantra—these are just thoughts—being challenged. The primary dogma of manifesting is not only that thoughts matter, but that they are causal—that simply thinking something is enough to bring it into existence. I find this concept terrifying, and I’m guessing that other people with anxiety or mental health issues might too.
Clinicians have delineated two kinds of thought-action fusion, says Johanna Thompson-Hollands, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. There is moral thought-action fusion and likelihood thought-action fusion. In both, people overestimate the power and meaning of their thoughts.
Moral thought-action fusion is the belief that thinking something is morally equivalent to actually doing it— if you think about killing someone, it’s the same as killing someone in real life, for example. Likelihood thought-action fusion is similar to manifesting— it’s the belief that thinking about something will increase the likelihood that it will happen.
Thought-action fusion was first described in OCD. Researchers noticed that OCD patients had this particular kind of cognitive bias: they believed that having a negative thought would make something negative happen. A lot of compulsions and rituals take place to try to avoid or circumvent that bad thing from happening.
Watch more from VICE:
It was originally believed that thought-action fusion was specific to OCD, but Thompson-Hollands says that she and other researchers have found that people with different kinds of disorders have also endorsed these beliefs. Thought-action fusion is now found to be common in not only OCD, but depression, eating disorders, psychotic disorders, and generalized anxiety disorder.
In 2014, Rhiannon Jones, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Winchester in England, looked at the electrical brain activity of people who believed their negative thoughts could spill out into reality, and found that they had more activity in an area of the brain called the precuneus, located between the two cerebral hemispheres. The more activity there, the more likely that a person thought that they had increased the probability of a catastrophe happening, just by thinking about it.
This area of the brain has been associated with OCD, disorders like schizophrenia (which has magical thinking components), as well as cognitive processes like self-reference and feelings of agency, Jones tells me.
“It is a kind of a neural signature that shows that you feel that you are actually causing something to happen, that you have the agency to do that,” she says.
Jones says that she wasn’t familiar with manifesting before I reached out to her. After reading up on it, she tells me that she finds it worrying. “I think it could be very damaging for people,” she says. “It would definitely be very dangerous to people who already have anxiety disorders, but potentially, it might even be enough to start those symptoms happening in someone who originally doesn’t,” she says.
A Huffington Post article, 7 Steps to Manifesting Anything You Want, advises that you can ask the universe for your desires through prayer, meditation, visualization, and vision boards, or by writing a letter. It says that asking the universe “once a day” for what you want, will make it more likely to happen and that if you find yourself doubtful, to say: I’m getting closer and closer to my goals every day. The universe has my back and it’s awesome, and to “repeat this phrase until you believe it.”
There are other phrases, written and spoken, the article suggests to repeat. If someone is spending a significant amount of time per day repeating thoughts, writing sentences, it could potentially start to resemble the rituals that people with anxiety and OCD have, which can include repeating sentences until feelings of anxiety dissipate.
Recently on Instagram, Jennifer Garner posted:
The logic goes: if good thoughts can come true, then bad thoughts can also come true, so you better not think any bad thoughts. But I don’t choose to have negative intrusive thoughts, they just happen.
People with anxiety and depression also try to suppress negative thoughts, which usually doesn’t go well. “This idea that if you do have a negative thought, then you've got to identify it quickly and put it out of your mind, and concentrate on the positive thing that you want to happen—that's promoting thought suppression, and the more that you suppress thoughts, then the more that you have the paradoxical increase of thoughts,” Jones says. “It could be enough to, theoretically, induce such obsessions in people.”
Rather than give thoughts too much power, or try to control the very existence of my thoughts, most mental health experts say it can be a more effective strategy to recognize that bad thoughts exist and not to give these thoughts too much power, recognizing that they’re meaningless if you don’t act on them.
If thoughts do have power, someone might think that “maybe the reason that things are going wrong in your life is just because you keep having these negative thoughts,” Thompson-Hollands tells me. “The more you worry about negative thoughts and how bad it is to think a certain way, the more those thoughts are going to come back to you, so you really start to get into a spiral.”
Thompson-Hollands tells me she’s not sure that manifesting would be harmful to those without underlying mental health risk factors. But given that 40 million adults in the United States have anxiety disorders, over 16 million experienced at least one depressive episode per year—that’s a lot of people who are already burdened by the meaning of their thoughts, and for whom the concepts of manifesting could be troublesome.
“It's a problematic idea to have floating out there in the culture because we don't have a lot of control over many of our thoughts,” Thompson-Hollands says. “If you're the type of person who already worries about that kind of thing, then more messages about the power of thoughts could ramp up your anxiety.”
It’s not bad to believe, or want to believe, that good things are going to happen to you. In fact, most people do, even when there isn’t any evidence to support it. A majority of people have what’s called an optimism bias, says Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.
She’s found that people expect to live longer and be healthier than average, that they overestimate their salaries and job prospects, and underestimate the possibility of getting a divorce. But an optimism bias isn’t present in everyone. Some people have a pessimism bias, and this bias is associated with depression symptoms. Depressed people also show differences in certain brain regions when imagining future events.
Sharot’s work has shown that having the right amount of an optimism bias can motivate people to behave in beneficial ways. Expecting positive things to happen can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to positive physical health too. But Sharot also tells me optimists work harder and longer, which might lead to higher pay and more professional success. It’s not just the optimism bias, but the effects the optimism has on behavior that lead to its advantages.
(It’s also important to note that Sharot says that extreme optimism can be a bad thing: it can lead people to underestimate risks and not to plan for them. Extreme optimists are more likely to smoke and save money compared to mild optimists.)
While we all want to believe in our future dream apartment and job, however, manifesting and optimism may be different things. In 2016, researchers developed a thought-action fusion scale, but for positive thoughts. They looked at people who believed that if they thought about things like winning the lottery, then they were more likely to happen.
They found that positive thought-action fusion was correlated with OCD symptoms and other measures of magical thinking, which is believing that one event causes another unrelated event, but not with overall positivity or hope. Even when thought-action fusion was applied to positive thoughts, it didn’t lead to more happiness. The study concluded that positive thought-action fusion was not the same as optimism or positive thinking, but was a separate phenomenon.
Optimism or manifesting might help people crystallize their goals, if just by explicitly stating what they want. This could lead them to unconsciously (or consciously) change their behaviors, take more risks, meet new people, work a little harder—all actions that could help them achieve those goals.
“It's not so much that the thought itself is leading to the outcome, it's more what the person does with it, behaviorally,” says Thomas Fergus, an associate professor in psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. “Manifesting and positive outcomes is probably the result of the subtle changes in a person's behavior, or willingness to stay with tasks, which is leading them to maybe see more positive benefits in their life.”
When we hear of someone thinking something, and then it happening, these are probably over-endowed coincidences. If someone thinks about wanting a red convertible, a rich husband, and $500 dollars, they might post on Instagram when they win $500 dollars in a raffle—but not mention how the other things that they tried to manifest didn’t appear. “One person who gets this sort of random experience that happens is now proof of manifesting, when really it's proof of just luck of the draw,” Fergus tells me.
Thoughts alone won’t do much if they remain unpaired with actions, for both good and bad thoughts. “You can think a million things, and they're not going to change the reality of the world until you do something in that direction,” Thompson-Hollands says. Some iterations of manifesting even discourage people from direct action, because it suggests the manifester doesn’t trust that the universe is going to provide what you’re asking for.
“I think that one of the problems with manifesting is that you're meant to have the positive thoughts, and then not use that to plan of actions,” Jones tells me. “It's meant to be all based on the thoughts.”
So how do we tell if we’re engaging in a healthy amount of optimism bias or stumbling into the world of thought-action fusion? The difference lies in how much power you’re giving individual thoughts to make a difference in your life, without any corresponding behavioral adjustments.
In an interview on Goop, the controversial wellness website, “Manifestation Advisor” (that’s her official title) Lacy Phillips said, “I was able to manifest incredible things. First it was an apartment in Echo Park for $300, then a partner with crazy specificity, like a photographer with long blond surfer hair and a Parisian mom.”
But credit where credit is due: Phillips goes on to say that she doesn't think manifesting should just be reduced to thoughts. “Thinking positive had nothing to do with it; it was standing in my power and strength and worth and not settling for less that mattered,” she said.
This is very different from the 2004 book by Esther Hicks, Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires, in which Hicks wrote: “It is not your job to make something happen—Universal Forces are in place for all of that. Your work is to simply determine what you want.”
That may be where the adaptive side of manifesting lies. Not in the thoughts themselves, but that something about manifesting leads people to change their behavior in a way that benefits them. At the end of the day, this is the opposite of thought-action fusion, which says that thoughts alone are the same as actions. It strips our anxious thoughts of the power to bleed into our lives. And it means that it’s not just about determining what you want, but doing something about it.