Think Magically—But Not Too Often

Published on June 7, 2016

Article by Matthew Hutson for Bodhi Tree

Around the age of 10, I picked up a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and I was hooked. His view of the cosmos through a scientific lens appealed to me much more than did the confusing and self-contradictory stories I’d heard in Sunday school and weekly church sermons. Once I became an atheist, I thought anyone who didn’t see the light of reason was being ignorant, willfully or otherwise. But more recently, I’ve had another kind of awakening. After studying cognitive neuroscience and becoming a science writer who covers psychology—and especially while writing a book about magical thinking—I’ve come to accept an important truth about the human mind: Illusions can be helpful. Now I face a task most of us humans will likely never complete: Finding the proper balance between reality and fantasy.

Magical Thoughts versus Reality

Magical thinking—treating the natural world as if it has elements of mind or consciousness, or treating your own thoughts as if they have a physical influence on the world—is universal. Everyone has at least a subconscious tendency to believe in things like luck, destiny and the human soul. Belief in the supernatural is a foundation of superstition, religion and spirituality around the world. According to psychological studies, even skeptics and atheists have the instinct to see or suspect what’s not there; they’re just more likely to second-guess it.

Magical thinking takes many forms, and from a scientific perspective, each one is a type of bias or delusion. So it’s no surprise that such beliefs are often harmful. Yet they can also enrich our lives and enhance our wellbeing. Given their variety of guises and effects, what is the proper balance between reality and fantasy?

One of the most obvious forms of magical thinking is the belief in luck. People have all kinds of thoughts about what might bring good or bad luck, from opening umbrellas indoors and black cats crossing their paths, to throwing salt, finding four-leaf clovers and fearing certain calendar dates. Name an object and someone in the world will tell you it’s lucky or unlucky. Some of these beliefs we’ve picked up through culture; others we’ve created ourselves through personal experience. Win a game wearing a certain shirt and you form a causal association between the shirt and success. Most of the time, spotting patterns and forming associations is functional—it’s how we learn. But we also read meaning into the world that isn’t there, leading us to see faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward.

The Illusion of Control

The great danger is that such pattern finding can give us the illusion of control: You think your lucky charm can protect you from anything, and you take heedless risks. Or you become so reliant on certain lucky rituals that you exhibit obsessive-compulsive behavior. On the other hand, the illusion of control can sometimes lead to real control. In a 2010 study conducted at the University of Cologne in Germany, participants were asked to make 10 golf putts, and half of the golfers were told they had a “lucky” ball. Those given a “lucky” ball made 35% more successful putts. They expected success, which increased self-confidence, and thus real performance. Luck became a self-fulfilling prophecy. So the solution here, I think, is to prepare as much as you can in life—do your homework, practice your golf swing—and once you’ve done that, a little magical thinking can give you a boost.

Another common form of magical thinking is the belief in fate or karma. You hear this when people say, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “It was meant to be.” Like belief in luck, belief in destiny is a side effect of an evolutionarily functional way of thinking. Humans are social, always considering others’ intentions and the possible purpose behind the events around us. This habit (called teleological reasoning) bleeds over into natural or random events, such as a hurricane striking because of the sins of the city. One danger here is the temptation to blame victims, because we can’t accept that bad things happen to good people. Another outcome is fatalism: If the universe has it out for you, you might as well give up.

Belief in destiny, however, can also give life a sense of meaning. You don’t need to see yourself as an arbitrary, mortal organism roaming an inconsequential planet in a happenstance universe. Research demonstrates that belief in fate can be healthy. Studies indicate that after a terrible life event, those who see it as “meant to be” or as part of a loving god’s plan show greater post-traumatic growth. They look for—and find—a silver lining. So the trick is to do what we can to change the world, but beyond that, we benefit from accepting our lot and making meaning out of it.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Yet another form of magical thinking is the belief in mind over matter, or the sense that positive (or negative) thinking can bring about positive (or negative) events. The book The Secret calls it “The Law of Attraction,” and it’s a staple of New Age wisdom. There’s a certain truth to such beliefs, in that our thoughts guide our actions, thus “manifesting” the outcomes we envision. And the placebo effect is well documented; our expectations psychosomatically shape how our bodies respond to medical treatments. But none of this is magic. What’s magic, and by most indications impossible, is our thoughts traveling out through the ether to bend spoons or bring riches to us from afar. Supposed evidence for such powers results largely from pattern matching—we link our thoughts to events in the world—and to selective attention and memory. The hits stand out and the misses are ignored.

Research suggests that positive thinking can be efficacious, but only a certain kind. Merely imagining a desired outcome actually satiates you and reduces your drive to achieve it. You must also imagine all of the hurdles between you and the outcome, and how you will overcome them. (If certain outcomes are highly unlikely, however, such as a swimming pool full of chocolate, fantasize away.)

Other types of magical thinking involve belief in life after death, consciousness in inanimate objects, power in symbols (think voodoo dolls and incantations), and the contagiousness of people’s essences (through family heirlooms or celebrity memorabilia). But the two main benefits—and drawbacks—of magical thinking are a sense of control and a sense of meaning. How do we increase the benefits and avoid the drawbacks? I’ve suggested doing as much as you can through secular means, and only then entertaining your fantasies. But this simple rule is hard to put into practice. And hey, magic does make life more fun.

As for me, I’m a nonbeliever. But I still knock on wood.

The back of a women's head

Published on: June 7, 2016

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