Well, this week I canâ€™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, â€œEven if youâ€™re a hard-core atheist who walks under ladders and pronounces â€˜new-ageâ€™ like â€˜sewageâ€™, you believe in magic.â€
As a philosophical agnostic and practicing atheist (not sure if that qualifies me for hard-core), I say â€“ letâ€™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 babyâ€™s photo on a dartboard? Remember, hesitancy is illogical.
But psychologist Carol Nemeroff offers a plausible explanation by saying, â€œThere are many layers of beliefâ€, and posits that for many people, the answer is, â€œMost of me doesnâ€™t believe, but some of me does.â€
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 â€œImagineâ€, 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 â€œmagical contagionâ€, the idea that germ theory has given us â€œreason to fear that something invisible â€¦ can be transmitted by contact.â€
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, â€œbecause missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overturned.â€
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, itâ€™s supremely logical to desire a measure of control over your destiny.
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 â€œsucroseâ€ and â€œpoisonâ€. The subjects shied away from the â€œpoisonâ€ glass, even though they knew it contained the same substance.
Hutson also points out the notable lack of â€œAdolfsâ€ subsequent to the 1940s. Curious.
This almost goes back to mind over matter, but takes it a step further by integrating the need for a â€œjust worldâ€. 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, â€œIf a test subject is submitted to painful shocks that he canâ€™t escape, people think less of him; itâ€™s comforting to assume that he must deserve it somehow.â€
This explains why some people think less of others with afflictions beyond their control.
As a proponent of critical thinking, itâ€™s hard for me to entirely endorse a lack of skepticism on any topic. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is â€œFor me, it is far better to perceive the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying or reassuring.â€ (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 peopleâ€™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 â€œa 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 itâ€™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)