The idea of manifesting has been around for decades. However, ‘finfluencer’ content on TikTok and other social platforms has put it back under the spotlight, resulting in plenty of people who are persuaded that a certain degree of ‘magical thinking’ can give them what they ask for – from a bike to an apartment to a sizeable cheque.
In fact, stories of success abound online. The question is: what does it really mean for these people’s long-term success? The ever-curious folk at the University of Queensland set out to research the psychology of manifestation beliefs, including how they related to motivation, judgment and decision-making. We caught up with research lead Professor Lucas Dixon to discuss his findings.
What, in a nutshell, is manifesting?
“It’s the belief that your thoughts can become reality.” – Professor Lucas Dixon
For manifesters, this amounts to ‘magical thinking’ rather than simply ‘positive thinking’. The idea is that if you have a goal or wish, you send that out to the universe or a spiritual being – some kind of higher power – and the universal law of attraction means it will come back to you. It was this magical element that Dixon’s team wanted to research – to understand what happens when people take this belief to the extreme.
What’s the trick to manifesting well?
“You need conviction. The idea is that the more you believe in your goal or wish, the more likely it will come true.” – Professor Lucas Dixon
As a result, manifesters will try to enhance their belief by repeating positive affirmations, or using a vision board to imagine their future, or by acting like they’re already successful – “faking it till you make it”, as Dixon puts it. This could be sending yourself a cheque in the mail (as comedian Jim Carrey did) or photographing your desired home every day for a year.
UQ compiled a rating system where those people who had a stronger belief in manifestation received a higher score. It was these people, the researchers found, who also perceived themselves as “more successful, had stronger aspirations for success, and believed they were more likely to achieve future success”.
On the other hand, the study found no relationship between someone’s manifestation belief and their income or educational attainment. Put simply: manifesters aren’t more successful than non-manifesters, objectively speaking.
What are some of the potential pitfalls of manifesting?
“We found manifesters who scored higher had more of a propensity to take risks.” – Professor Lucas Dixon
They were also more likely to have experienced bankruptcy. In fact, for every point participants scored higher on UQ’s manifestation scale, their chances of having experienced bankruptcy increased by up to 40 per cent – as did their chances of owning a volatile investment like cryptocurrency.
Up to 40%
Increase in chance of bankruptcy for every point participants scored higher on UQ’s manifestation scale
As Dixon explains, this ties into the fact that they were more prone to rate themselves as being able to achieve levels of success that weren’t necessarily tied to any kind of realistic assessment of where they were right now. In fact, they were more likely to believe they could ‘get rich quick’.
There is another potential downside that Dixon sees: “If you believe that you have to think positively to attract success, you’re more likely to believe that if you think negatively, you might attract that too.” His concern is that such a person would turn their back on things like mounting debt based on the notion that you shouldn’t focus too much on it.
There is a potential upside though. Those who rated themselves more highly had a greater chance of being more confident and hopeful. As Dixon says: “You could see that as a good thing, especially in terms of helping people feel better about themselves and their life.”
How do you guard against the more negative aspects of manifesting?
“The comedian Jim Carrey told everyone he wrote a pretend cheque to himself and then, five years later, got exactly what he wanted. We can see examples like that. But we don’t know the number of people who have written that same cheque and got nothing.” – Professor Lucas Dixon
This is called survivorship bias, Dixon says, and it leaves people particularly vulnerable in the era of social media. “We are surrounded by inspiring stories of success. For example, successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college and made it big, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. However, for every dropout success story, there are countless others where the person didn’t succeed. The stories of those who didn’t make it rarely get the same attention.”
In fact, one of the big concerns with manifestation is its vulnerability to the business ‘guru’ industry. “If you’re more likely to believe in unlikely levels of success, you’re more likely to believe in the claims of people that are selling unlikely success,” Dixon says.
However, there are strategies to guard against this. “The advice I give is to be careful with positivity,” Dixon says. “That if you feel like you have to be positive – and especially if you’re feeling like you’re blaming yourself for your problems – it’s important to think about all of the factors that might lead to your success or failure in any kind of venture.”
He points to American Professor of Psychology Gabriele Oettingen who has found that visualising success can work well. However, you also need to consider your current situation and plan for any obstacles that might arise. “That process alone can help people shift their goals to bring them a little bit more in line with their reality,” Dixon says. “So, they’re not completely disconnected from their own abilities and their life situation.”