Bookshelf: The Hidden Mind

We all believe in magic—at least a little bit.

By Merel van Beeren, Alison DeNisco, Becca Weinstein, Mary Diduch, published May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking
THE GIST Think only naïfs believe in things without evidence? Not so fast, cautions Hutson, a former PT editor. Magical thinking extends well beyond mysticism and superstition—our daily lives are riddled with beliefs that have no grounding in truth. We treat animals and computers as human, give ladders a wide berth, and flinch at snake-shaped branches. We ask “why me?” as if there should be a reason, and defeat stings more if we “jinx” ourselves first (“I’m a shoo-in for the job”). Hutson argues that these beliefs are no less than a bedrock of our humanity. A world in which coincidences have meaning and nostalgia adds value (would you trade your grandmother’s old necklace for a brand new one?) lends significance to the chaos and randomness of our lives.

The Skeptic’s Cheat Sheet

You may not have a lucky rabbit’s foot, but even the most sensible among us trust in a few basic assumptions that are really no more fact-based than Santa Claus. Some core magical thoughts:

The brain represents reality accurately. In fact, our mind constructs the world around us in the most useful way possible—accuracy is not a priority. The brain exaggerates our perception of height, for instance, to keep us away from ledges and help us avoid falls.

We have some control over the world. People overestimate their agency, but it’s for the best—those with an accurate sense of their own influence are often depressed. Participation in lotteries goes up when players can choose their numbers, even though they are no more likely to win.

We have souls. You think nothing of the kind, you say? Cross-cultural rituals show that most people believe they’re something more than flesh and bone. “If we really thought of corpses as defunct vehicles left by the roadside,” Hutson writes, “we’d dispose of them unceremoniously.”—Merel van Beeren

3 Myths About Cheating

 The Honest Truth About Dishonesty

In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, behavioral economist Dan Ariely demonstrates how irrational forces can make us cheat on everything from our diets to our taxes. The things you think you know about cheating and lying are probably wrong—trust us. —Alison DeNisco

MYTH Only a few bad apples cheat.

TRUTH While we tend to focus on million dollar scams, almost everyone is guilty of small acts of deceit, like stealing pens at work. “We benefit from cheating, but we want to think of ourselves as good, honest people,” Ariely says. So you’ll take those pens as long as you can find a way to justify it—you work such long hours, after all.

MYTH We cheat only for our own gain.

TRUTH “There is some kind of release of moral judgment that happens when helping other people,” Ariely says. In his studies, people cheated most when their performance benefited a stranger. Humans are naturally altruistic (call it the Robin Hood complex).

MYTH You will cheat just this once.

 Wooden Pinocchio Puppet
TRUTH We don’t always register small dishonest acts (e.g., cutting to the front of a line), but more obvious ones can reinforce a negative self-image. When we slip, we become more likely to do it again—a phenomenon psychologists call the what-the-hell effect. After that first deceptive act, cheating can be a slippery slope.

 The Tools
The Tools

by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels

THE GIST Stutz and Michels, a nontraditional psychiatrist-psychotherapist team based in Los Angeles, offer five thought exercises—the titular “tools”—designed to overcome common problems like anxiety and insecurity more quickly than standard therapy. Their techniques are quirky, to say the least. To boost willpower, they suggest you imagine your future self on your deathbed, telling your current self to stop wasting time.

KEEP IN MIND... Left to its own devices, the mind will turn to negative thoughts more than positive ones. Next time your thoughts wander, the authors suggest, take a moment to list the things you are grateful for—you might remember real reasons to be more upbeat, instead of just forcing yourself to fake it. —Becca Weinstein


Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

by Leonard Mlodinow

THE GIST You can’t help it. Your heart races when you spot someone attractive. You intuitively know the real meaning behind your sister’s “I’m fine.” Being in a group makes you feel secure—a primitive response to an outside threat. According to physicist Mlodinow, no matter how hard we try, we don’t control most of our feelings, perceptions, and actions. Our unconscious minds do.

KEEP IN MIND... The roots of our feelings rarely sync up with the way we understand ourselves. We replace, fabricate, and scrap key elements of even our best-preserved memories. Mouth-watering adjectives can prime us to order otherwise generic food off a menu (forget the “noodles,” you want zesty pasta!). —Mary Diduch