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Magical Thinking

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, and spirits and ghosts are often invoked.

People tend to make connections between mystical thinking and real-life events, even when it’s not rational. Some of this is animistic thinking, the belief that the supernatural is everywhere and has some power over what happens in people's lives.

Sometimes people look for meaning in strange places, 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 berry or they would die. Seeing patterns also gives an illusion of control, conferring some comfort by eliminating unwanted surprises.

Why Do People Believe in the Supernatural?

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Children are humanity's primary make-believers, embracing fantasies like imaginary friends with a passion. As children grow older, however, they do away with fantastical play, but still keep their superstitions within reach.

Magical thinking extends to the idea of "magical contagion," or passing the magic along. Hence the reason why so many people wanted to touch Mother Theresa. The high-profile celebrity auction is another good example of magical contagion: The estate of Marilyn Monroe, for example, auctioned off the actress's personal belongings for $13 million, while the winning bid for just one hat worn by Prince was $32,000. Everyone wants a piece of the magic.

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Forms of Magical Thinking

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Here are a few ways people welcome the mysterious into their lives:

Superstition: Many cultures believe in superstitions. In Portugal, for example, you may walk backward so the devil will not know where you’re heading. In the U.S., people may knock on wood and avoid crossing the path of black cats and walking under ladders.

Lucky Numbers: In China, the number 8 is pronounced bah, and sounds like fah, which means wealth. And so, in playing the lottery, these are the luckiest numbers: 26, 16, 41, 32, and 28.

Placebo Effect: A sugar pill can deliver powerful medicinal results. Studies show that being exposed to a sham treatment (without knowledge) can alleviate pain and even boost immunity.

Coincidence: Everyone experiences some form of this. For example, a person may think of a long-lost friend who then happens to text them out of nowhere.

Synchronicity: A belief that, like coincidences, life's events are not random but deeply ordered, giving people the feeling that everything happens for a reason.

Fortune and Luck: Some people have all the luck, while others never seem to get a break. Or are "lucky" people just more open to new opportunities because of their personality?

Rituals: These practices are deployed in many domains. Sales representatives may wear a "lucky" suit to an important meeting, while baseball players may adjust their gloves the same way or spit in the same spot before every pitch.

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