Do you make wishes over birthday candles? That’s magical thinking. Have you crossed your fingers, wished someone good luck, tried to “push” the long fly ball fair or foul? Magical thinking. Do you pray for people or feel sure that after you die some part of you will go on existing somewhere? Spiritual beliefs too are viewed by some as magical thinking.
The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep us Happy, Healthy, and Sane by Matthew Hutson is a perceptive and well-written book. Magical thinking takes place when “we treat the physical world as though it had mental properties” that we can influence. Our minds, we think, can reach out beyond our bodies to inanimate entities—from objects to time itself—that have the capacity to respond.
We indulge in magical thinking because, all in all, it’s good for us, according to Hutson. It has evolved through natural selection because it boosts our confidence and our sense of control, crucial ingredients for human survival in a chaotic world.
Far from a sign of stupidity or weakness, magical thinking exemplifies many of the habits of mind that made humans so successful. Once you’ve accepted that the brain constructs reality, and that the brain has evolved like any other organ to help its owner survive and reproduce, it follows that the brain constructs reality in the most useful way possible for its owner. The key word here is useful, which is not to say accurate. The brain doesn’t care so much what’s really out there; it just needs to stay alive and be replicated, which might involve telling us a white lie now and again.
Hutson demonstrates how thoroughly magical thinking permeates our lives; his seven “laws” are actually seven categories: meaningful objects, the power of symbols, action at a distance, people-like animals, telepathy, the afterlife, fate. Magical thinking is more than just superstition. It helps get us through the day in big ways and small, consciously and unconsciously.
But magical thinking has its critics. Its evil twin is irrationality, unreasoned action that has provoked genocide, religious persecution, bigotry, domestic violence, child abuse, and run-of-the-mill unhappiness. Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality offers a comprehensive discussion, with chapters on “Conformity,” “Ignoring the Evidence,” “Overconfidence,” and “False Inferences.” Hutson acknowledges throughout his book that magical thinking has its dangers, but his emphasis is on its value. As he sums up in his New York Times op-ed on the subject,
Which isn’t to say magical thinking has no downside. At its worst, it can lead to obsession, fatalism or psychosis. But without it, the existential angst of realizing we’re just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us.
I’m on Hutson’s side. If the main effect of our projecting awareness on to entities of all kinds had added mostly misery to our lives, it seems to me such imaginings would have dropped from our mental skill set long ago. Maybe we can stay comfortable with harmless magical thinking while we learn to curtail its murderous side. Keep your fingers crossed.