Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Psychological Approach to the "Law of Attraction"

How focusing on your goal increases your ability to achieve it.

Key points

  • The "Law of Attraction" purports that people attract into their lives what they focus their attention on.
  • When people decide what they want, they are more apt to notice things that can help them achieve their goals.
  • People cannot manifest anything that is truly impossible.
Ali Pazani/ Pexels
Source: Ali Pazani/ Pexels

Many of my clients are very interested in the concept of manifesting what they want by utilizing something known as the “Law of Attraction.” The basic premise of the Law of Attraction is that we attract into our lives whatever we focus our full attention on. It proposes that positive thoughts attract positive things to you and negative thoughts attract negative things.

Most of what is written about the Law of Attraction makes it sound like magic. However, much of its effectiveness can be explained by some basic Gestalt psychology principles that date back to the early 20th century and are solidly based on the science of how our brains work.

What is Gestalt psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology founded in Germany in the early 20th century by Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), and Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967). Gestalt psychology studies the principles behind human perception. It developed theories about the laws governing how the human brain perceives separate bits of data as meaningful wholes.

An example of this would be that when we are listening to music, we hear and respond to a melody as a whole—not just as a series of individual notes. Some of you may be familiar with the basic Gestalt psychology thesis: The whole is greater or different than the sum of its parts.

What is figure/ground formation?

One way to think about the Law of Attraction is in terms of the Gestalt psychology perceptual concept of figure/ground formation.

At any point in time, there is more possible data to attend to than our brain and senses can process. Our brain prioritizes certain information and ignores other types to keep us from being flooded by too much information. What we prioritize becomes the bright, shiny, interesting “figure” that stands out. Other things get relegated to the now unseen background.

What do humans prioritize?

In the simplest terms, humans prioritize what interests them at the moment. This usually fits into three basic categories:

  1. What we want.
  2. What we fear.
  3. Our current pressing biological needs, such as food when we are hungry.

How does this relate to the Law of Attraction?

The Law of Attraction encourages people to visualize and pay attention to what they really want. Once we start doing this, what we hope to attract and everything associated with it becomes part of category one—what we want.

Now, we are suddenly noticing things that we might have previously ignored.

If we follow up by taking appropriate steps to pursue the object of our desire, we increase our chances of getting it.

You can think of this as a process:

  1. Identify what you want.
  2. Pay attention to data that relates to attaining what you want.
  3. Take appropriate action to get it.

Are we really attracting what we want?

What is more likely is that we are changing our priorities, so that we are increasingly noticing things we may have ignored before. Most of the methods associated with the Law of Attraction and manifesting are meant to make the object of our desire a steady “figure:"

  1. Visualize what you want in great detail every day.
  2. Imagine that you already have what you want.
  3. Make a vision board where you attach pictures and objects that relate to what you are trying to attract.
  4. Set up an altar of objects related to what you want.

As you can see, by doing the above, we increase the likelihood that we will notice opportunities to get what we are visualizing because we have prioritized it dramatically.

Is this all there is to the Law of Attraction?

I do not think so. I am very good at manifesting what I want myself. I know that we can have an effect on the world around us in ways that are not yet fully explainable by science. There are still mysteries. I suspect that we will discover the rest of the underlying scientific principles at a future date.

However, a lot of how the Law of Attraction works can now be explained logically and accurately in terms most people can understand. And, unlike what people think, manifesting also requires hard work and preparation.

For example, I can manifest opportunities to write or teach, but I still have to know how to do both well to take advantage of these opportunities. There is no free lunch. If I want to be a competent guitar player, I can visualize all day and every day, but I will not achieve anything until I pick up a guitar and learn to play it.


A famous occultist and writer on magic Lon Milo Duquette is reported to have said:

Most of what people called magic in the past can be described today as applied psychology.


Mary Henle (1961) (Ed.). Documents of Gestalt Psychology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Perls, F. S., Hefferline, R. & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. NY: Dell Publishing Company.

More from Elinor Greenberg Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today