Where Psychology and Spirituality Overlap
Law of Attraction, or self-fulfilling prophecy? The power of faith, or the Placebo effect? Science and spirituality make different arguments for the cause and effect happening between human thoughts and behaviors and the outcomes that they see. What is really going on here, and (why) does it matter? Let’s explore.
These two fields actually agree on almost everything except for one key difference: a non-physical causal mechanism of many of the outcomes achieved. Surprisingly, the other concepts or ideas are called different things but are effectively the same thing. At the foundation of both fields regarding success, desire and belief are the fundamental components of achieving your goals. If you want something badly enough and believe you can have it, you will do what it takes to succeed. This is supported by both science and spirituality.
So let’s try to find where there is alignment before we analyze the big difference. We’ll use the psychological term as the basis and then discuss how the concept is agreed upon but where the belief in the cause is different:
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and the Pygmalion Effect – The first of these two psychological principals states that if you believe in your ability to attain an outcome, you’ll be more likely to attain it. For example, if you want to get an A on a test and believe that you can with proper study, you will be more likely to study and get an A than if you thought that it was impossible. The latter psychological principle states that your beliefs regarding others, when conveyed to them, might influence them in ways that cause them to act in the way that you stated. For example, if you told someone that they were smart, they might begin to act smart to meet those expectations. Spiritual principles are completely aligned with this concept but simply go one step further as to saying that those thoughts are (through God, the law of attraction, karma, etc.) setting some non-physical elements in motion that help beyond the simple thoughts->behaviors->results causal relationship provable by science.
- The Placebo Effect – Possibly the most interesting because science can’t prove the causal mechanism at play, scientific studies involving human physical and mental health and well-being have to have “control groups” to compare the effects of the treatment to people who simply believed they were getting the treatment. The Placebo Effect is named after the placebo given to the control group to make them think they’re getting the treatment when they are actually not receiving the active ingredient of the medication. Scientists have to concede here that belief makes people more likely to experience positive health outcomes and have concluded that there is a relationship between belief, stress, and the body’s ability to respond to health issues and repair itself. Again, the only difference between this and spiritual beliefs is whether a non-physical force is involved in supporting these health outcomes.
- Priming – Psychology has found in a multitude of studies that by priming your brain to think about something causes you to be more likely to notice it in your experience in the near future. The most popular example that people like to use is if you buy a car and then see that car on the road everywhere shortly thereafter. The point is that that type of vehicle might’ve been there all along, but you’re just now noticing all the time because you put it in the front of your mind. This effect is the most interesting because it seems to have the most disagreement as to what’s going on and the degree to which it works. For example, on the psychology side, they did a study where people who played a word game where they saw many words about being old and slow were more likely to walk out of the room they were in more slowly than a control group. However, subsequent attempts to reproduce the results have been unsuccessful. Similarly, this is where different forms of spirituality divert as well: is the priming evidence that you are attracting those things or events with your thoughts (e.g., the Law of Attraction), or are they signs guiding you toward certain thoughts or behaviors (e.g., many flavors of Christianity).
- Goal-Setting, Positive Intention, and Gratitude – If it isn’t clear, I am combining these because they are the most common thought-actions conducted during prayer. Most people ask for things that they want, ask for a positive outcome or experience that can lead to that outcome, or express gratitude for things they have received in life. Psychological studies generally suggest that goal-setting helps you to accomplish more (or at least feel more accomplished), positive intention helps you to be happier and have more positive experiences and interactions with others as a result, and gratitude helps with a person’s stress management, positive outlook on life, and relationships. So science can show that there is power in prayer that can be measurable if one does it in certain ways; it would just attribute the benefit to the thought actions occurring and not non-physical involvement. There’s minor disagreement on what is necessary for prayer to be effective in spirituality, as religions mostly focus on conducting the act with some recommendations while other forms of spirituality like the Law of Attraction would state that the prayer would have to be positive in nature to attract positive outcomes. This is actually an interesting nuance, as most psychological studies on the power of prayer did not necessarily direct people to pray in a certain way, nor could they hold participants to that since they cannot record or track their thoughts.
- Meditation – I was going to include this under the prayer section, but there is a big mechanical difference between meditation, which strives to eliminate thinking, and active prayer, which focuses more on having an internal monologue. This one is pretty clear, though: scientific studies show the benefits of meditation on stress levels, well-being, and other mental and physical health outcomes. Spirituality agrees and just has one additional part about how meditation connects you with a higher power or the universe.
Looking at these ideas, the conclusion is pretty clear: both science and belief agree that there is real power in having a strong desire and belief in positive outcomes as well as in focusing on the positive and reducing self-destructive thoughts. Therefore, it is important for both believers and secularists to practice techniques that can allow them to have more positive outcomes and feelings in life. Meditation, gratitude, positive expectation, getting your brain into the right mindset, and belief in positive outcomes regardless of the current situation are all practices that psychology and spirituality agree are beneficial.
That brings us to the one, key question causing the differences of opinion: is there anything beyond simple psychological, biological, and physical changes causing these improved outcomes? Well, unfortunately, that is an idea that can’t be scientifically proven. You see, science is—by definition—the study of the physical world, so it cannot test anything outside of that realm. Therefore, the debate between these kinds of benefits being purely physical in nature will likely go on forever barring a physical event occurring where the only explanation could be a non-physical cause. Since almost all events up to the creation of the universe have scientific explanations at this point, that is unlikely to happen (and, even if it did, many skeptical people would still conjure up alternative theories).
Here’s the more important question for you, though, given this information: if you know that certain things have benefits, does it matter how they are caused? In the search for knowledge, yes; in practice, no. Like getting value from electricity, you don’t need to know how it’s generated and how it gets to your house; you just need to know that you flip the switch and the light turns on (and, maybe, not to touch the wires with metal or throw water around so you don’t kill yourself). The benefits of these concepts can be achieved regardless of your belief in the non-physical...with one minor exception: faith.
In the way that I define it, faith is the belief in positive outcomes without or despite physical evidence. The most obvious form of faith is faith in God, which would be the belief that there is a non-physical entity who loves you or is guiding you despite no physical proof of His existence. Faith is the one thing that could give the spiritual an advantage over secularists for one, simple reason: it is difficult for someone who doesn’t believe in anything they can’t prove to believe in the possibility of a positive outcome without proof. So someone who believes in the non-physical is more likely to believe in positive outcomes and, therefore, is more likely to use priming, the placebo effect, self-fulfilling prophecy, etc. to their advantage. Non-believers are not. The only question is whether those benefits of having faith outweigh any perceived disadvantages or risks such as believing in things that aren’t true or holding harmful beliefs.
While I cannot tell you what’s true about the non-physical world, I can tell you to work on your positive expectations and intentions, be grateful, meditate and/or relax once in a while, and have a little faith (in positive outcomes). Regardless of what causes them to work, they work—of that, scientists and spiritual people agree.