The concept of magical thinking has a long history in psychology. Although you would typically associate beliefs in magic with the kind of primitive ideas about the world shown by children, there is considerable evidence that adults can hold to irrational beliefs just as strongly as do elementary-aged youngsters. The content of those beliefs may change, but the essence of this less than scientific way to view the world can linger.
To illustrate the nature of magical thoughts in adults, consider the child’s idea about something as seemingly clear regarding the moon’s appearance in the night sky. As observed in the mid-20th century by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, a 6- or 7-year-old child may be convinced that “the moon is following me.” When it comes to toys, children can also ascribe lifelike qualities to their dolls, stuffed animals, and plastic dragons as you can easily observe while watching them play. However, as children move into adolescence, their beliefs in logic and rationality outweigh, theoretically, these childish convictions.
In Piaget’s framework, children grow out of their so-called “egocentric thinking” such as believing the moon follows them, and “magical thinking” such as believing their toys are alive. However, in real life, adults may come to hold the belief that an objective force is “out to get them” in cases when everything seems to go wrong over the course of a day. Adults may also place magical powers into their objects, such as lucky team shirts, a favorite mug, or a computer that they are convinced has the evil intention of causing its programs to crash.
As it turns out, these magical beliefs aren’t limited to your views about the things or even events in your life. Although you may not perceive them as such, you can also hold magical beliefs about your relationship. A recent study by Aleksandra Niemyjska and Michal Parzuchowski of SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warszawa, Poland (2020) suggests just how pervasive those irrational ideas can be in close relationships.
Noting that people become attached to their own personal objects for some kind of reason (such as your deceased aunt’s favorite scarf), Niemyjska and Parzuchowsi suggest that it’s also possible for your attachment to your partner to lead you to become attached to your partner’s possessions, too. As the Polish authors note, what they call “sympathetic magical thinking” is your perception that your partner’s inanimate objects contain some qualities of your partner. “Thus, the more people need to be close to their partner, the more they seek both the person and—when he/she is unavailable—inanimate objects associated with him/her” (p. 1635).
The crux of this type of magical thinking is the belief that “certain objects or events affect one another in a non-physical way, through similarity or contagion” (p. 1636). Your partner’s “essence,” in this view, is attached to the objects that your partner owns, including clothing. By interacting with these objects, then, you’re interacting with your partner’s qualities.
What differentiates sympathetic magical thinking from such other irrational beliefs—like the general idea that objects have lifelike qualities (known as anthromorphism) or the existence of paranormal phenomena (such as superstitions)—is that romantic magical thinking is specific to one person, namely, your romantic partner. Romantic magical thinking would, in this framework, be tied to your tendency to remember better a birthday present you received from your partner than one you received from someone to whom you’re not particularly close.
Another distinction between romantic magical thinking and ordinary anthropomorphism and superstitions is that you can’t put your magical beliefs very readily into words. They represent a gut feeling, maintain the Polish authors. The objects are associated, at an emotional level, with your love and attachment toward your partner but you can’t really explain why. Indeed, if you’re trying to make up for the absence of your partner with these objects, your need for belongingness will win out over your rational thoughts.
Having established the theoretical basis for sympathetic magical beliefs in the possessions of your partner, Niemyjska and Parzuchowski next set out to explore how best to measure them. Given that these beliefs operate below your level of conscious awareness, they would not necessarily be all that easy to put into words. Therefore, the Polish researchers developed a scale that was phrased in terms of behaviors rather than beliefs. If you engage in these behaviors, so the thinking goes, this suggests that you hold those beliefs.
To test the scale’s properties as a useful instrument, the Polish research team recruited adult online samples in Poland, the U.K., and the U.S. Starting with an original 12-item measure, Niemyjska and Parzuchowski then narrowed the items down to the 5 that provided the best fit to the data, naming the scale the “Romantic Sympathetic Magic Scale (RSMS).” Additionally, the authors analyzed the relationship between RSMS scores and measures of related concepts, including beliefs in paranormal phenomena, attachment security, and relationship closeness. Participants also responded to a single question asking if they “usually carry with you something associated with your partner,” such as a photo or gift.
Considering the possibility that people who are high in RSMS might also have a tendency to ascribe magical beliefs to other inanimate objects, in a later study, the research team also asked participants whether they believed that objects such as cars, computers, and televisions had anthropomorphic features (i.e. a mind of their own). The later study also included measures of the extent to which participants were preoccupied with the possessions associated with their partner, including a question about whether they remembered which gift their partner had given to them during the previous holiday season.
With all of these possible links between the RSMS and other, related, measures, the authors were then in a good position to see what uniquely might define sympathetic magical beliefs compared to other beliefs and the quality of attachment security. Additionally, by examining how well RSMS scores predicted relationship quality, they could test whether it helped or hurt someone’s ties with the partner to have these beliefs in the value of the partner’s objects and gifts.
Summing up the results across the series of studies, Niemyjska and Parzuchowski concluded that their new measure suggested that people who tend to hold sympathetic magical beliefs about their partner’s objects also are more likely to show a lack of critical judgment when it comes to superstitious thinking. At the same time, they are also more likely to be high in attachment anxiety, meaning that they fear being without their romantic partners. Behind those high RSMS scores, in other words, is more than a “judgment error,” but instead a motivation to keep their partners as close as possible. If their partners can’t be there, then the partner’s objects become the next best thing.
Now it’s time to take a look at the scale itself. For each of the 5 items, score yourself on a scale of 1 (disagree strongly) to 5 (agree strongly):
- Sometimes I say something to a photograph of my partner.
- When I am away alone, I take a photograph or an item with me that reminds me of my partner.
- I like to cuddle up with my partner’s clothes.
- When I browse through pictures, I sometimes caress photos of my partner
- A gift from a loved one is much more than just an item, it is a part of the person himself/herself.
The average across the 5 items was approximately 2.5, or slightly toward the disagree end of the scale, with most people falling between about 1.5 to 3.5. If you are at the high end of this scale, then, it suggests that you might be one of those people who tries to hold your partner close by holding close those objects you have of your partner’s.
There would appear to be minimal risk to having scored at the upper end of the RSMS. The further analyses reported in the Niemyjska and Parzuchowski paper would suggest that if you do, it’s likely that you have one or more of your partner’s objects in your possession, and that you tend to experience a moderate degree of closeness to your partner. Indeed, holding these objects, and beliefs, could also be an important source of coping should you be parted from your loved one through prolonged periods of separation or even bereavement.
To sum up, the RSMS provides a way for you to quantify the extent to which beliefs about your partner’s possessions direct your everyday behavior. The findings also suggest that you don’t need to be ashamed of these beliefs. Those cherished possessions may be able to keep you feeling close to the important people in your life particularly, as so often happens, when you can’t enjoy their presence in person.
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Niemyjska, A., & Parzuchowski, M. (2020). You make all things special: Developing a scale to measure sympathetic magic in romantic relationships. Current Psychology, 39(5), 1635. doi:10.1007/s12144-018-9861-3