Magical Thinking: Happy, Healthy, or Hazardous?

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.

Adults blowing out candles

Making a magical wish.
(flickr.com)

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.

Marilyn M on reasons

The appeal of magical thinking
(daynaroselli.com)

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.

Joan of Arc (people.opposingviews.com)

Magical thinking as horror: the burning of Joan of Arc (people.opposingviews.com)

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.

5 thoughts on “Magical Thinking: Happy, Healthy, or Hazardous?

  1. I think the human mind is indeed prone to magical thinking, but it also seems so whenever one looks at a philosophy one disagrees with! Whenever we lean to the right after a golf shot or after having released a bowling ball, we’re acting as if telekinesis is a fact. This holds true for atheists, religious, physicists or the naiive child.

    But there is a big area of the unknown. For example, children draw the sun with a smiling face, as if the Sun is a living object. We smile knowingly because we think of the Sun as a lifeless ball of atomic energy after our materialistic training. But not so fast – who is closer to the truth? The child effortlessly makes a link to something to which we have become blind. All life on Earth has come from the Earth, and all of it is raised by the Sun – meaning that whatever component we call “life” has indeed come from the Earth and Sun – therefore the two indeed must contain whatever we call “life”.

    In my mind, Darwinism in others seems a form of magical thinking because it satisfies the intellect’s desire to have a lifeless, mindless origin of life. Everything is bent to fit the philosophy which, to me, seems like magical thinking. Take a single example of human and animal life: homosexuality. This trait must have long ceased to exist, if all traits are a result of procreative selection. Therefore, clearly there are other forces at work. In post-WW2 Germany, for example, many more boys were born than girls. This fact has never been explained. In other arenas, ruthless revolutionaries were born whenever a ruling class became corrupt and cruel, and intellectual argument had failed. We also saw a whole generation of logical thinkers born in the Renaissance to overthrow the cruelty of the church. There are balancing forces at work which we ascribe to “chance” or “good luck”. Magical thinking.

    A more logical reason is that Nature does have mind, does have life – and efforts are made to redress imbalances, as in Germany to restore a lost generation, via natural processes. All this is unacceptable to a “lifeless universe” philosophy, so it remains “unexplained” or “good luck”.

    Homosexuality is common among animals, and for all we know it could be a natural reaction to an overpopulated world. How? Doesn’t fit – unexplained! Or, we can assume that Nature, full of life and mind and consciousness – explaining its origin in all forms of life, while still leaving the subtle mechanisms and energies ripe for discovery in the future – has many mechanisms for dealing with unhealthy deviations from a natural course.

    Maybe magical thinking is popular because secretly, we all love the surprise of magic, and know from the way the world’s physical laws have unravelled so far in surprising, even astonishing ways – that the future must also be as filled with such wonders. Otherwise it would be a pretty gloomy prospect that we now know everything, and are doomed to live forever, to trudge along in the same materialistic rut, as we do now!

    • There are clearly some benefits of magical thinking – particularly if it is limited to ‘the world is full of wonders’. Unfortunately ‘harmless’ magical thinking is often a gateway to ‘harmful’ magical thinking.

      Examples include bolstering prejudices against people who hold different ideas, faiths, or opinions. It makes it easy to ignore what they say if you have already formed an opinion based on magical thinking.

      Similarly magical thinking makes it easy to give up thinking about reality (“gosh the rainbow is so wonderful I need not think about how it is formed”).

      Finally it enables other people (by accident or design) to exert control over the magical thinker (“God is Love and therefore you should pay me 10% or your earnings”).

      That magical thinking can be beguiling doesn’t mean that reality has to comply with it. Fear of the consequences is no good reason for not engaging with them.

  2. I believe that a principal underlying force for magical thinking is hope. It probably does not matter if this arose via Darwinian evolution or is concomitant with our being aware of our finitude or whatever. Over the course of human existence including today, life has been exceedingly difficult for many, and certainly hope helps one to endure misery. Some hopes have no empirical or physical support – a perfect afterlife – while others do, even if they are minuscule – there are documented cases of spontaneous remissions of terminal cancers. I believe that nearly everyone is sustained by hope of some sort. In and of itself, hope can be a powerful benefit, but as DiscoveredJoys points out, there are certainly problems that can arise magical thinking extend beyond oneself.

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