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Magical Thinking

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

What Is Magical Thinking?

Most people don't believe in magic, but they may still wish for a good outcome by knocking on wood. Magical thinking—the need to believe that one’s hopes and desires can have an effect on how the world turns—is everywhere. Spirits, ghosts, patterns, and signs seem to be everywhere, especially if you look for them. People tend to make connections between mystical thinking and real-life events, even when it’s not rational. Of course, some of this is animistic thinking, with the belief that the supernatural is everywhere and has some power over what happens in people's lives. There is some comfort in thinking that someone or something is pulling all the cosmic strings. It gives us the permission to relax a little.

Magical Thinking Starts at a Young Age
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Children are primary make-believe enthusiasts, they embrace fantasies like imaginary friends with passion. This is normal in child development. This belief comes in different forms including Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Children, in addition, hold onto objects like a special stuffed toy or dirty torn blanket to help keep their fears and anxieties at bay. And shutting the bedroom closet door will definitely keep the monsters away.

When do children start and stop believing?

Children start to believe when they are toddlers. Adults feed into their magical thinking with beliefs such as Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, among others. As children grow older, at around age 10, they do away with fantastical play, and question how feasible magical thinking is. How can a man fly in the sky and shower every child on earth with gifts? Children may well dispense with such beliefs, but they still keep their superstitions within reach.

Does magical thinking enhance creativity in kids?

Researchers believe that fantastical play and magical thinking do indeed promote creative divergent thinking. One study has found that when children watched a film with magical undertones, their performance on creative tasks increased significantly when compared with children who watched a film with no references to magic.

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Looking for Signs of the Supernatural
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Sometimes people look for meaning in strange places, that’s because the brain is designed to pick up on patterns. Making such connections helped our ancestors survive what they didn’t fully understand—for instance, they learned not to eat a certain kind of berry or they would die. Seeing patterns also gives an illusion of control, conferring some comfort by eliminating unwanted surprises. Humans look for superstitions, lucky numbers, coincidences, synchronicities, among other forms of thinking.

What is superstition?

Superstitions come in many forms and they appear across cultures. In Portugal, for example, people walk backward so the devil will not know where they’re heading. In Middle Eastern countries, people hang blue colored amulets in the shape of an eye, which will ward off curses made through a malicious glare. In the U.S., people knock on wood, cross fingers, avoid crossing the path of black cats, walk under ladders, among other habits.

What is coincidence?

Everyone experiences some form of fate, some more powerful than others. For example, a person may think about a long-lost friend, one who has not come to mind for years. And then, at the same time, the bygone friend reemerges through a phone call or a text seemingly out of nowhere.

Some of Us Believe More Than Others
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Some people do seem to have all the luck, meanwhile, others who are plainly doomed never seem to get a break. However, researchers argue that the "lucky" people are just more open to new opportunities. Their personalities find the possibilities in life. They are the ones more inclined to look for patterns and coincidences.

Who believes in lucky numbers?

Again, across cultures, lucky numbers will bring prosperity, good health, and other forms of success. In China, the number 8 is pronounced bah, which sounds like fah, a word that means wealth. In India, the number 9 taps love, peace, faith, among other important things. And if you play the U.S. lottery, lucky numbers seem to be 23, 11, and 9.

Why does magical thinking appear in rituals?

These practices are deployed in many domains. The eager sales representative may wear his "lucky" suit to an important meeting; and why wouldn't he if he has enjoyed prosperity again and again in that particular suit. Meanwhile, baseball players may adjust their gloves the same way before a play, or they might spit in the same spot before every pitch.

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