Random Asides

Magical Thinking

Well, this week I can’t seem to get enough of Psychology Today. Earlier this week I blogged about Giving Up the Ghost, by Matthew Hutson, here, and today I take on his article about magical thinking.

The article explores the human tendency toward magical thinking, and examines several examples. Hutson challenges, “Even if you’re a hard-core atheist who walks under ladders and pronounces ‘new-age’ like ‘sewage’, you believe in magic.”

As a philosophical agnostic and practicing atheist (not sure if that qualifies me for hard-core), I say – let’s go.

The article touches several points on the spectrum of magical thinking, including a subtle shade that I think could apply to many of us, even if only on a subconscious level. For example, how many of you would find it difficult to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard? Remember, hesitancy is illogical.

But psychologist Carol Nemeroff offers a plausible explanation by saying, “There are many layers of belief”, and posits that for many people, the answer is, “Most of me doesn’t believe, but some of me does.”

Hutson explores seven common forms of magical thinking.

Blessing vs. Curse

The first two (and the last one) focus on the attachment of extrinsic value to inanimate objects. This value can be positive or negative. For example, people flock to see the piano on which John Lennon wrote “Imagine”, but shy away from donning a sweater worn by Hitler. Kids perceive their blankee or teddy bear as irreplaceable by a physically identical substitute. Why?

A scientific analogy is offered in the form of “magical contagion”, the idea that germ theory has given us “reason to fear that something invisible … can be transmitted by contact.”

Mind Over Matter

This can take the form of wishing (something good or bad) and even believing on some level that your wishing made it happen. This particular form of magical thinking can cause tremendous guilt in a person that wished something bad on someone in anger, only to blame themselves when something bad happened.

The article cites the well-documented placebo affect as mind over matter in action.

Good Luck Rituals

Who among us has never had a good luck ritual? The article explains that the human mind is wired to look for patterns as a precursor to survival, saying, “because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overturned.”

Good luck rituals also help us feel a sense of control over our environments, however delusional. One of the great difficulties of life is its cruel, random indifference. Though the ritual may be illogical, it’s supremely logical to desire a measure of control over your destiny.

Names

Has anyone ever, when thinking of names for a pet or a child, rejected a name because of an unlikable person with the same name? What is the power of a name?

The article cites an experiment in which subjects watched sugar being poured into glasses that were then labeled as “sucrose” and “poison”. The subjects shied away from the “poison” glass, even though they knew it contained the same substance.

Hutson also points out the notable lack of “Adolfs” subsequent to the 1940s. Curious.

Karma

This almost goes back to mind over matter, but takes it a step further by integrating the need for a “just world”. Like the cruel, random nature of life, the idea that bad people get away with good things is extremely hard on the human spirit. But the concept of karma also works in the reverse.

People are very uncomfortable with the idea that bad things happen to good people. Hutson says, “If a test subject is submitted to painful shocks that he can’t escape, people think less of him; it’s comforting to assume that he must deserve it somehow.”

This explains why some people think less of others with afflictions beyond their control.


As a proponent of critical thinking, it’s hard for me to entirely endorse a lack of skepticism on any topic. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is “For me, it is far better to perceive the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying or reassuring.” (Carl Sagan) And I do think that a tolerance of magical thinking can lead to harmful consequences, once it extends beyond the realm of the innocuous (e.g. Psychics taking people’s money and giving false information about dead or missing loved ones. Creationists fighting to have intelligent design taught in a science classroom next to evolution. For more examples, click here).

However, I’m willing to consider that a measure of magical thinking might be beneficial to some people in some cases.

For example, Hutson points out that “a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as ‘depressive realism’, haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.”

So Hutson takes a pragmatic approach to magical thinking in that he suggests that it’s less important whether harmless delusions are true, and more important their impact on our behavior and spirit.

Any thoughts? Any guilty parties?

(Hat tip to Matt Hutson at PT for the link)

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41 Comments

  1. Contagion magic is utterly fascinating, not least of which because it's so easy to demonstrate for oneself. And I have to note that it predates germ theory by a long shot, which is part of what makes it so interesting: it's highly tempting to posit an evolutionary advantage to sensing "contagion" in a pre-germ-theory world.

    I'd argue that whether a delusion is true is directly related to the importance of its impact on behavior, and directly related to how we study them. We know these behaviours are related to magical thinking because they are irrational.

    I'd also quibble over using the word "belief" with respect to something subconscious, but I know he's just trying to be provocative there. ;-)

  2. I think you mixed three different threads of reasoning there but I will do my best to respond.

    I have a different perspective on (darts and children) subject because of my work with artificial intelligence. This property of near association is one where the core of a decision can be influenced by near approximations. I would not characterize it as "magical" but more in the way of associative interference.

    Depressive realism.

    To assume that my ability to understand the universe somehow limits the actual nature of my existence, seems illogical.

    I think that a great deal of these types of things result because a person needs to decide many things without complete information and approximations always have some strange edges.

    Magic itself.

    "The ability to influence the universe without obvious technology". I guess it is that very large gray area between certainty and infinity that might allow someone to err on the side that makes them most comfortable or happy.

    The Spaghetti Monster has told me that you are very wonderful and I think that is true. Does that make you happy?

  3. I'd say a couple of these categories are very borderline.

    I wouldn't name my child after someone I don't like because it would have an unpleasant association – every time I used the name I would be reminded of the person I didn't like. The person is real and my dislike is real (presumably based on some sort of experience unless I am a bigot) so how is that magical thinking?

    Similarly some inanimate objects gain value because of memories they invoke or similar. I could replace my wedding ring but I would be sad to lose the original.

    I guess I see what Matthew Hutson is saying but it seems to me he is stretching the meaning of magical to try and get everyone to fit into the magical thinking category.

    Interesting to talk and think about though so don't take this as criticism of your post. :-)

  4. Sometimes I think psychologists posit things that don't exist to explain behavior – in this case the fiction of cognition, one aspect of which they here call "belief."

    I can easily imagine myself hesitating to wing a dart at a picture of a baby. But I also imagine this isn't because a "part of me" "believes" that doing so will actually harm a baby. I think it is more likely that my mirror neurons don't know the difference between an image, and an actual baby, because they don't communicate well with the neurons that recognize the difference between images and the objects they represent. The mirror neurons might well trigger hesitancy as a result.

    If so, this doesn't imply I "believe" on any level that throwing a dart at a photograph is harmful. It is merely that the neurological apparatus that models sensory information has a limitation.

    It may sound like splitting hairs, since the outcome is the same, but I find the difference between theorizing the existence of a "mind" on the one hand, and theorizing a brain on the other, to be significant.

  5. I can't really find much in this that I'd class as even illoglical, let alone magical thinking. Why would it be superstitious thinking that leads to people not calling their kids Adolf? It's more likely partly a desire to not be seen as a neo-nazi, and even if you think that's a logical reaction to other people's magical thinking (which I don't; if I knew a 12-year old called Kylie I'd probably assume her parents were Kylie Minogue fans) that still doesn't make it illogical in itself.

    Hesitate to throw a dart at a photo of a baby? Not me, unless I was in a room full of people, such as where most dart boards tend to be, and I was concerned that I might offend the mother.

    If any of these points have merit, I would say it's likely in the psychology of perception rather than magical thinking.

  6. I'm guilty of the name thing. I definitely hold on to associations with certain names, negative and positive. I'd like to think I'm getting better the more I'm aware of it, though.

    Stacy, I agree with you that this issue isn't a clear yes/no – I also think that, in certain circumstances, a certain amount of "magical" thinking might do more good than harm. I think the skepticism comes in with reserving judgment until you've examined those circumstances.

  7. I agree with moopet.

    The "name" thing I consider more a psychology issue than superstition. Call it Namism if you like.

    Humans like to groups things in to likes and dislikes with as little in between as possible. If you find something that you like that currently falls in the dislike you group (a hard working minority from a group consider lazy), you are more likely to exceptionalize that one than assume your grouping incorrect.

    Aside from that. If I dislike someone named Ashley enough that hearing about her makes me vomit in my mouth a little, why would I want to give a child that name.

    Note that I am not saying that their isn't a superstition around some name. Christian, non-hispanic, americans very rarely name a child Jesus.

  8. Keep hashing it out – that's what we're here for. My jobs is just to relay the idea and see what happens.

    It seems like most of the debate is over whether the examples actually constitute magical thinking. I have thoughts on that, but they will have to wait a little bit until I get to work and can sit down to write something substantial.

    In the meantime, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. Things that we believe in often bypass the logical parts of our brains. We don't reason that it is lucky to avoid walking under a ladder but may reason that the chances of something falling on your head are greater if you do. Similarly good luck rituals are not reasoned. It is only when we make the effort to reason something through that we can see how illogical our actions may really be.

    Further than this is the fact that OCD suffers may ritualistically perform an action despite reasoning that it is wasteful and pointless. Who doesn't act little OCD once in a while though? ;)

  10. Wow. The amount of irrational thought in this post is staggering. If I claimed that emotion was "magical thinking," you'd all laugh at me. You might say something like, "No, emotion is a processing short-cut," while pointing out that animals require less resources to just dislike things that hurt them instead of rationally concluding (perhaps by using some sort of regression line) that something has a reduced chance of being beneficial if it has property x .

    It's economics.

    The reason I don't throw darts at any likeness of a baby is that I don't want to get in the habit of throwing darts at things that look like babies. If I can dehumanize the image of a baby, how far am I from dehumanizing the baby?

    This fits nicely with not calling my baby Adolf. Why would I want to force my neighbors to choose between identifying my child with the Nazi party leader and actively disassociating my child's (presumed) namesake? It would alienate my child. Moreover, the name that is chosen for children reflects 1) what parents believe about acceptance of the name in a culture (effected by parental culture, education, experience, etc.) and 2) how they wish their child to fit in with that culture (parents who name their child "Killer Anderson" probably have a different idea where their child is going in life than someone who names their child "MaryAnn Alice Smith"). Superstition about names is merely an intellectual shortcut to processing these (and possibly other) variables.

    The same goes for all of your "magic" – they are just shortcuts.

    Karma is short for the punishment that people receive when they deviate from the group (active punishment) or when they damage resources they need to survive (passive punishment).

    Good luck rituals are intended to get us to the same mindset as another time we did something well. Frankly, this is nothing short of Pavlovian. If every time I hear this bell ring, I get food, and I'm hungry, then I need to make the bell ring. What a perfectly adapted shortcut if you replace "bell ring" with "kill food" or "lick moss".

    If you take this shortcut a step further, it reasons that if an item induced one person to be one way, it will induce others to be the same way. "When the bell by Jim goes off, Jim gets food. When the bell by me goes off, then, I should get food." (Incidentally, I don't understand why tests for self recognition don't use the Pavlovian response more. Train an animal that a light over others = food. Later, post a mirror that shows them and their light. If they respond to the light stimulus like it twas food, then they recognize it is their self in the mirror.)

    Mind over matter is another form of prayer. It is more about taking time to focus on your goals and relax a little than it is about have "I will pass the test" written a bunch of times in a notebook (for example). Focusing on goals helps you achieve those goals because it helps you guide the courses of events and to act quickly at times of opportunity.

    Thanks for letting me rant about this one.

  11. A person who sticks pins in a doll and thinks it will cause harm to another is different than a person who burns an effigy as symbolism. Someone who follows rituals because they are symbolic (or fun) is different than someone who believes they will have magical effects. A person may be reluctant to throw darts at a babys picture because they believe at some level it shows a callous disrepect for others (or may convey that idea to other people) not that it will magically harm a baby. Would you allow someone who routinely gleefully threw darts at baby pictures to babysit your baby? Also look at all the past turmoil over flag burning. Does it involve symbolism or some subliminal magic thinking?

  12. Sometimes skeptics do seem a bit like fundamentalists. I mean, c'mon, "magical" in this post is obviously a metaphor.

    It gets tiresome sometimes arguing about language with skeptics, as though they can't understand what you mean. It seems like intentional misunderstanding just to cause an argument.

    Just sayin'… that's how it appears to me sometimes.

  13. slxpluvs – I'm sorry I didn't get to respond to your post, but you posted it after I crafted my response.

    I don't disagree with what you wrote or your position about "shortcuts". I think it's important to hear a point of view like yours.

    This debate is great. I'm going to contact the author today to see if he has time to possibly respond to some of the great comments. I'm sure he can do a better job than I.

  14. Bah, throwing darts at a baby's photo doesn't dehumanize anything if you don't let it. Just like how soldiers are taught to dehumanize the enemy to make killing easier. It doesn't work if you don't let it. Some people fall for this kind of bullshit, others don't.

    Good luck rituals are nonsense as well. Preparation rituals are Pavlovian, but when you start to think that LUCK will come out of it, you've went off the deep end.

    The author is spot on.

  15. Hey guys. Lots of interesting discussion about my article.

    First, a few points of detail:

    -The Adolf example was kind of parenthetical in the story. The main point was that we belive words and names actual change the nature of what they label (note the sugar/poison study) and can act as spells (people fear tearing up a piece of paper with a loved one's name on it.)

    -In the darts/baby study, everyone was actually trying their hardest to get a bull's eye, but the accuracy of people who said they trust their hunches decreased when the baby pic was there.

    -craigp: Yes, fear of contagion, magical or otherwise, predates germ theory by a longshot, which is what kept us safe from illness even before modern biology.

    -I admit, I use the term "belief" in nonstandard ways sometimes. In an earlier draft I wrote "Magical thinking can be distinct from magical belief. Or rather magical thinking is one level of belief, more like a feeling. It often acts through subconscious or emotional pathways despite our critical objection." I hoped that sentiment would across even without that line.

    Anyway, the consensus seems to be that what I call magical thinking, you all call mere association, or simple cognitive heuristics. For sure, as I argue, MT is based on mental shortcuts. So I'm curious, in your view, what actually crosses the threshold from shortcut into true magical thinking?

  16. I never say "Good Luck" to someone who is about to scratch a lottery ticket. Not for fear of *jinxing* them, but because people who do believe in jinxes, get really pissed off. Apoplectic even. [throws dart at baby picture while wearing Hitler's sweater, then drinks from glass labeled *poison*]

  17. Stacey said:

    Ok. It seems like part of the problem is the term “magical”. If we rephrase to “seemingly illogical”, it may be easier to analyze.

    Probably so.

    And Donna said:

    Sometimes skeptics do seem a bit like fundamentalists. I mean, c’mon, “magical” in this post is obviously a metaphor.

    Well, I often grow weary of stating obvious nuances of language when I'm sure the reader knows them as well.

    However, in this case, the author of the piece himself says:

    “Even if you’re a hard-core atheist who walks under ladders and pronounces ‘new-age’ like ‘sewage’, you believe in magic.”

    The use of the word "magic" in that quote doesn't seem to be a metaphor to me. It appears as though he's saying everyone believes in magic on some level.

    And addressing it those terms, I disagree.

    As many commentors have pointed out, there are rational reasons for exhibiting some of the behaviors cited. And then on a personal level, I simply don't exhibit others.

    Blessing vs. Curse (magical contageons) — Nope. Not me. Of course, I'm not the only person in the author's sweeping generalization. Perhaps many people would indeed shy away from Hitler's sweater. But is that due to an innate belief in "magical contageons", or simply because we prefer the good feelings we get from the song Imagine to being reminded of the atrocities of the Nazis?

    I'd much rather visit the place where ice cream was invented than rummage through the house where my family was murdered, but not because I think I'm going to be inundated by the spirit of evil or because I think something in the house will murder me, too. But simply because the traumatic events associated with the house stir the ugly emotions of grief, anger, and sorrow.

    Mind Over Matter (placebo effect) — I can't say that I think the placebo effect reflects magical thinking as much as it does wishful thinking and denial. By definition, we're not pre-disposed to believe the placebo effect will occur. Otherwise it wouldn't be the placebo effect.

    Good Luck Rituals — Good luck rituals for me at this point are just diversions. I hold no belief that they work, but I may engage in them for tradition or just for fun. I know better. And I say "good luck" far less than I say "do well" or "be brilliant".

    Names — This one seems even sillier than the rest.

    Karma — I try to be a good person because that's what I should do as a member of a society, and it makes me feel good. I have no delusions that it will keep bad things from happening to me. Hell, bad things happen to me all the time.

    The point is, I don't walk under ladders and pronounce ‘new-age’ like ‘sewage’, but I assume I fall into the category of person the author claims believes in magic. But the fact is, in the context of his piece, I don't.

  18. Sam,

    -Magical contagion: In one study, people thought wearing Mr. Rogers's sweater would make someone friendlier, EVEN IF that person didn't know it was worn by Mr. Rogers.

    -Mind over matter: The placebo effect was mentioned in a sidebar listing things that are now completely validated by science; we have found many mechanisms by which believing in a pill's biological effect actually makes it real.

    -Rituals: Sure, most of us "know better," but that doesn't mean we won't feel slightly uneasy if a personal ritual is broken. The brain has already associated the ritual with a positive outcome.

    -Names: The least research has been done on this one, but enough not to dismiss it.

    -Karma: What goes around comes around for many social reasons, but wouldn't you feel some sense of justice in the world if your worst enemy were struck by lightning? Studies show that you would, at least a little bit.

    By the way, if any of you feel strongly enough about the article's BS factor (or its brilliance) feel free to email a letter to the editor: [email protected]

  19. Interesting article, but I'm afraid I'm in agreement with Sam here. I think one of the main differences between a skeptic and the magical thinker is the basic logic of cause and effect.

    In the karma example, a magical thinker may be inclined to think that bad things happen to bad people. The skeptic may be pleased that his enemy had been struck down by lightning, but does not assume the chance act was a result of dastardly deeds.

    To me, much of magical thinking is about trying to put the cause of external events in personal terms. In the absence of another person as the cause, we project ourselves onto inanimate things or create an invisible "spirit" to blame. By doing this, magical thinkers misplace the cause. Skeptics are quite often aware of this nature of the human mind, and with some introspect can discern the difference between external causes and those done by ourselves.

  20. -Magical contagion: In one study, people thought wearing Mr. Rogers’s sweater would make someone friendlier, EVEN IF that person didn’t know it was worn by Mr. Rogers.

    I don't doubt that some people would think that. We chronicle all sorts of outrageous beliefs all the time on this site. But unless I'm mistaken, your contention is that everyone exhibits belief in magic on some level. I was simply pointing out that I don't on this particular level, and I offered an alternate explanation about any perceived aversion to Hitler (or even Mr. Rogers) sweaters.

    -Mind over matter: The placebo effect was mentioned in a sidebar listing things that are now completely validated by science; we have found many mechanisms by which believing in a pill’s biological effect actually makes it real.

    Yes, perhaps I was unclear. I understand the mind over matter implications of the placebo effect. I just wanted to point out a slight difference between this and the other cited behaviors.

    In the magical contageon theory for example, the subject believes in the effecacy of the "bad vibes" or "mojo" of the sweater beforehand. It's an established belief.

    On the other hand, where the placebo effect is concerned, the patient doesn't, or doesn't have to, believe in the effecacy of the placebo effect going in, but in the supposed properties of the medication they think they are getting. In other words, you don't give a patient a pill and say, "this is only a sugar pill" and then expect the patient to say, "Oh that's okay. The placebo effect will take care of everything."

    -Rituals: Sure, most of us “know better,” but that doesn’t mean we won’t feel slightly uneasy if a personal ritual is broken. The brain has already associated the ritual with a positive outcome.

    Is feeling slightly uneasy belief in magic? Is it magical thinking?

    -Names: The least research has been done on this one, but enough not to dismiss it.

    Again, I don't dismiss it, but I hesitate to suggest that everyone exhibits this behavior. Or if they do, I wouldn't pigeonhole a reason for it.

    -Karma: What goes around comes around for many social reasons, but wouldn’t you feel some sense of justice in the world if your worst enemy were struck by lightning? Studies show that you would, at least a little bit.

    Well, I don't know if I would feel justice for a lightning strike, unless my enemy had somehow become my enemy because he/she had caused lightning to strike me. I might feel some sense of satisfaction, but that speaks more to my petiness and less to a belief in karma, doesn't it?

  21. Okay, I guess the two that stuck out to me the most were the teddy bear example and the names.

    Like a lot of posters have already said, a negative assiciation is not necessarily thinking that the name itself is negative. When I was a kid, my principal's name was Steve and he was a real asshole, so I hated that name. Now I know a lot of really nice Steves and although I wouldn't name my kid that, I don't have an aversion to the name.

    As far as the kid with his blankie thing goes, I was a first-class friend of stuffed animals when I was a kid. Even then I knew that in actuality they were not real and it wasn't the same to rip the head off of one as off of a cat or something, but I still felt great feelings of protectiveness…In all honesty, even now if I see a discarded stuffed animal on the street it makes me very sad (and not just because it somehow represents lost innocence, or I'm thinking of how sad the kid whose it was might be) and if it's the right time of month it can actually elicit tears.

    Jeez, I mean, a stray shopping cart turned over looks like a lost member of some herd to me. But you know what? I am also a really compassionate person, concerned greatly with the welfare of animals and children especially..so maybe the emotional connection to anthropomorphisable (is that a word?) objects is a parallel to being able to have emotional connections to real people and animals?

    Further, I would argue that emotional attachment to "things", other than the obvious fact that if there is some kind of event-memory (like say your wedding garter or something), could also be a sort of recognition of self in the object…like the stuffed animals that you play with are extensions of yourself (because you're the one doing the actual playing), and so attachment to them is attachment to aspects of yourself that come out only via play with that particular character.

    I am highly logical, but proud to say that I cannot walk past the stuffed animal aisle at the goodwill for fear of getting weepy. I am not a vulcan!

  22. Sam: Just to be clear, the article does not say the placebo effect is an example of magical thinking. It lists it, in a sidebar, among other scientific phenomenon such as electromagnetism, bacterial infection, and DNA replication.

    Bjornar: "We already know we’re not Vulcans, and prefer it that way." Yes, exactly. I hoped to point out some surprising ways in which even people who pride themselves on being Vulcan-like fall prey to irrationality. The article was about things we believe on some level even as we try to suppress those beliefs with skepticism. Personally, I found it fun to explore the cracks in my Vulcan exterior. :)

    Everyone: Psychologists define "magical thinking" to include subtle–even unconscious–reactions to cues. Most of you here don't really like that definition, which is why I'm encouraging you to offer examples of what you DO consider magical thinking. Or does it not exist as a phenomenon distinct from such overt false beliefs as "The tooth fairy is real"?

  23. Ok. It seems like part of the problem is the term “magical”. If we rephrase to “seemingly illogical”, it may be easier to analyze. Science and skepticism are logical, by definition. And I think we can agree that, at least on the surface, the examples are seemingly illogical. So our job then becomes to determine whether they are actually illogical, which some of you have already started to do.

    <Moopet says

    Hesitate to throw a dart at a photo of a baby? Not me, unless I was in a room full of people.”

    It’s interesting to bring in the concept of other people’s perceptions, as I do think it would play a role in this case. However, can you honestly say you’d have no hesitation if you were alone?

    If such a scenario would make you hesitate, I might invoke Blue Collar Scientist’s mirror neuron theory. And this theory actually supports Hutson’s position that we’re somewhat “wired” for illogical thinking.

    In regards to the name debate,

    Monika says,

    ”I wouldn’t name a child after someone I don’t like because it would have an unpleasant association.”

    Moopet says,

    “[The decision not to name your child Adolf] is likely partly a desire to not be seen as a neo-nazi.”

    Jedipunk says,

    “If I dislike someone named Ashley enough that hearing about her makes me vomit in my mouth a little, why would I want to give a child that name?”

    This presents two logical reasons for avoiding certain names, which have nothing to do with one’s intrinsic value of or reaction to the name itself: association and others’ perceptions. I like the name Chrystal, but I knew a Chrystal in high school that I didn’t like. I’m not likely to use that name, even though I like it, because I (on some level) attach attributes of the person to the name. Is that logical?

    And on “depressive realism”,

    Paul Mohr says,

    “To assume that my ability to understand the universe somehow limits the actual nature of my existence, seems illogical.”

    Yes, it does. Especially since our understanding of the universe has positively affected our ability to exist in it as well. I think what Matthew is getting at is something I’ve brought up several times as a motivator for religious involvement – life is so cruel and random at times that it is very comforting to think that we have some control over our fate (via prayer) or that people who get away with bad things will be punished (on judgment day). I understand how the removal of these delusions could be psychologically painful.

    And last, Paul Mohr asks,

    “The Spaghetti Monster has told me that you are very wonderful and I think that is true. Does that make you happy?”

    Why, yes. I’m flattered, Paul! In fact, I feel all warm and noodly. Thanks!

  24. Mr. Hutson, I for one fully embrace the standard definition of "magical thinking."

    I think some of the confusion may be over equating "magical thinking" with "belief in magic," since belief (in common parlance) implies conscious reality claims.

    For instance, I hold very dear a small pie tin owned by my late great-grandmother. I like having it around, and I might even try baking in it one day. But I don't believe that her little pie tin serves as a vessel for transferring her baking skill to me, even though I'd like to believe that.

    So I'd argue that the question isn't what constitutes "magic," but rather what constitutes "belief. " Can I act as if my Mam-Mam's pie tin is blessed with magic baking power, without actually believing it's so literally blessed?

  25. Thanks to this post, the next time I’m alone with a photo of a baby (which doesn’t happen very often), I’m going to stab it repeatedly with the sharpest object I have at hand.

    Sometimes skeptics do seem a bit like fundamentalists. I mean, c’mon, “magical” in this post is obviously a metaphor.

    That’s not how it came across to me. If it is a metaphor, it’s not a good one, since it obscures the important distinction between actions we perform to try and influence reality directly (e.g., sympathetic magic) and those which can be explained by an aversion to negative reactions (e.g., naming a baby Adolf) or “mental shortcuts” operating outside the regime in which they were developed. Metaphors which obscure important distinctions are not useful aids to thinking.

  26. I think "magical" thinking requires a certain intentionality behind it. I have to believe that when I'm doing X that it will affect Y in some way through some mystical/supernatural causal relationship. If I do X without believing in the causal realtionship, then I could be doing it for all sorts of reasons, be it habit, encultured, it makes me feel good, absent-mindedness, etc.

  27. Matthew Hutson said:

    ". So I’m curious, in your view, what actually crosses the threshold from shortcut into true magical thinking?"

    …and I have one or two hypothetical scenarios.

    I think if you accept that I have a favourite pen, which I carry around with me and have carried for years, I might feel a little lost without it. It's not because I need my lucky pen to get all the hot chicks. It's because I like the pen and it's comfortable and familiar to write with.

    I'm asthmatic; I rarely need to use my inhaler but if I am away from the house and notice I don't have it on me I feel myself get more and more anxious. That's closer to the magical idea. The extent of my worry is irrational. So that's over the line, but I know where the fear comes from – it comes from a childhood where if I forgot the inhaler out on a school country run for example, I could find myself in real trouble. It's more of a Pavlovian thing. So, understandable, perhaps?

    I'd say that if something has no real-world logic to it, like sticking pins into a doll, that's over the line. If it stems from a logical sequence of psychological events or conditions, it's not magical thinking. Being afraid of a poodle because a pitbull bit you as a child isn't magical thinking, it's an induced phobia, and while it can take a hold of you to a similar extent, and become totally irrational, I think it's important to keep this distinction in mind.

    (also, sorry, have no idea how to quote someone in comments here – anyone?)

  28. Belief can triumph over obstacles thought to be impossible to overcome. I don't think of this as magic. I believe our minds have more control over our environment and the physical world than we realize. What do we consider dreams, clairvoyance, spontaneous creativity? To modern man, they are magic. In 5,000 years, we may have a answer to the question of what these things mean. No matter what science explains, the human imagination always seems to be a step ahead. Why is that? I believe there is something divine contained within us. I'm not saying God, or Magic, or whatever. But, it's something beyond the nuts and bolts of our bodies, and I don't think any scientific argument could convince me otherwise.

  29. Everyone: Psychologists define “magical thinking” to include subtle–even unconscious–reactions to cues. Most of you here don’t really like that definition, which is why I’m encouraging you to offer examples of what you DO consider magical thinking. Or does it not exist as a phenomenon distinct from such overt false beliefs as “The tooth fairy is real”?

    Matthew, I don’t know if I can speak for everyone here, but perhaps we’re putting your article through some paces because “magical thinking” has a different connotation among a lot of us than it does for the psychologists doing the type of research you mention in your article.

    I would submit that your article’s contentions about irrational reactions being commonplace among a lot of people are most probably valid. It’s just that as skeptics, we are forever mired in discussions about religious miracles, ESP, ghosts, fairies, and things of that nature, and when something is presented to us as “magic” it’s usually something for which an effect has no explanable cause, or at least no obvious explanable cause.

    So when you introduce an article where the effects may very well have explanable causes, but label it magical, we naturally want to say it’s not, and point the explanations out.

    Plus we really like being argumentative know-it-alls.

  30. Of course, then the question becomes, to what extent can you trust my self-reporting? How else can we be judged, but by our behavior? How could my otherwise irrational behavior be considered rational unless it satisfies some desire of mine, and whence cometh that desire but from some belief? Perhaps Nemeroff’s “layers of belief” has some merit after all.

    Cripes, did I really just say “whence cometh?” Lame… :-P

  31. I think it is good to try to understand why people believe irrational things. With understanding we can adjust our behavior accordingly. I was just worried that the "even atheists believe in magic " sentiment could morph into the rationalization I've heard before of: Everybody has to faith in something (therefore blind faith is acceptable) or Everybody has to believe in something (therefore belief in anything is acceptable).

  32. (also, sorry, have no idea how to quote someone in comments here – anyone?)

    To quote someone: (less-than-symbol)blockquote(greater-than-symbol) Insert quote here (less-than-symbol)/blockquote(greater-than-symbol)

  33. It is important to realize that ways of thinking, whether emotional, "magical", rational, sensory, or otherwise, all evolved. That means that they are either the "best" way to solve some problem that our ancestors faced, or an artifact of such a solution. If seemingly irrational thinking has continued for a large number of generations then it must be providing some benefit – even if it is not immediately apparent. This is the evo-devo equivalent to a meme, I think.

  34. That deserves some comment. I think that the fact that accepted prevailing science may say that the world is composed of Air Earth Fire and Water and that we are then just a certain percent of each properly mixed, does not mean that I accept that as a complete explanation. Scientists admit (rightly) that not all is known and will we will never know everything. The key here is the B word. I can say that to limit my view of potential by what is currently known is illogical and that does not deny reasoning. Once you say that I can use a reasoning which is not subject to interpretation and review, you have ventured into that area that encompasses emotional "non-thought". The fact that many aspects of existence are not yet known implies that there are other positive (or negative) aspects that will be discovered. I think I am saying the same thing, but I find the same conclusion through reasoning. I don't accept that it implies "divinity". I was walking in the park today and it felt so great to feel warmth of the sun on my skin again after such a long winter and I filled my lungs with warm fresh air and the smells of new life and I knew that I was good and I was filled with the spirit of the Spaghetti Monster. I -believed- then that I must be divine as I felt wonderful and that I -must- be the Holy Blue Light of the Divine and eternal Spaghetti Monster and I must impose my divine will on all the poor unfortunate souls that do not feel the joy of spaghetti. Then I stepped in a dog poop and realized I must just be enjoying the day too much.

  35. I am positive that I am as guilty as anyone of “magical thinking” in some areas but I am unable to identify specific instances. I wonder if this is because I am simply not aware of them at all or because they are so integrated into my personality that I cannot pinpoint them.

  36. Once you say that I can use a reasoning which is not subject to interpretation and review, you have ventured into that area that encompasses emotional “non-thought”.

    It’s amazing to me when skeptics see evolution of emotional/magical thought to be logical but not the evolved thinking itself.

    Just because a way of thinking can be described with diagrams and arrows doesn't mean it makes more sense.

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