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Magical Thinking

7 Ideas We Really Need to Stop Believing

The dangers of 'magical thinking.'

Source: microcosmos/Shutterstock

How many times a day do you either cross your fingers, knock on wood, or worry that your good luck will turn on you? When two bad things happen to you, do you cringe in fear of an inevitable third unfortunate event? Even those of us who “know better” are readily prone to this type of superstitious thinking. Further defying logic, we also readily believe in our own psychic powers: You’re thinking of a friend when all of a sudden your phone beeps to deliver a new text from that very person. It's proof positive that your thoughts caused your friend to contact you at that very moment!

These are just a few examples of the type of mind tricks to which we so readily fall prey. In his book, “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,” psychology writer Matthew Hutson systematically documents the most common of these. Summarizing a wealth of psychological evidence, he also explains the empirical basis for each. See how long it takes you to recognize some of your own mental foibles in these 7 laws:

1. Objects carry essences.

What’s your memorabilia collection like these days? According to this first rule, we attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire. Perhaps you’ve got a baseball signed by your favorite player or a pen that a rock star used to autograph your concert ticket. The greatness that’s rubbed off onto this memento gives you a sense of connection with your hero and makes you that much more special. Perhaps it’s not even something from a famous person, but from someone close to you who has died. After the death of a loved one, people often find it extremely difficult to get rid of all of the person's possessions, keeping a special scrapbook, dresser drawer, or keepsake chest filled with the most significant of these. The fact of the matter is that the objects are just objects, and despite their connection with special people in our lives, they have no inherent ability to transmit those people’s powers to us.

2. Symbols have power.

Humans have a remarkable tendency to impute meaning not only to objects but to abstract entities. We imbue these symbols with the ability to affect actual events in our lives. According to the principle known as the “law of similarity,” we equate a symbol with the thing it stands for. In one experiment testing this idea, people refused to throw a dart at a picture of their own mother’s face but were able to take dead aim at a photo of Hitler. They confused their mother’s image with their actual mothers. The law of similarity is also expressed as “like produces like": If you want to roll a high number on a die, the thinking goes, you should shake it harder. We might also attribute qualities to an object on the basis of the word used to label it, or to a person on what that person is named. (Hutson points out that the popularity of the name Britney, for example, peaked after the release of Britney Spears's first album and has dropped ever since.) We also avoid uttering names that we think could cause us to be harmed like the characters who refer to Lord Voldemort In the Harry Potter books as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Voodoo rituals and magical spells also rely on the power of symbols.

3. Actions have distant consequences.

In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our unpredictable lives, we build up a personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts. Hutson cites several compelling examples from the lore of fishermen. Their jobs are the deadliest in the U.S. and the high stakes have led them to develop all sorts of rituals. They don’t allow anyone to talk about horses, carry suitcases on board, or leave town on a Friday, to name a few examples. They feel certain that violating any of these rules will cause severe injury if not loss of life. These extreme examples are just instances of the more general tendency that we all have to form “illusory correlations,” in which we assume that when two events co-occur, they are somehow logically connected: You wear a certain hat to a crucial playoff game of your favorite team, and they win. Now, you must wear that hat at all future games. If you don’t, and the team loses, it’s your fault. Believing that you can jinx yourself into a bad outcome by thinking the wrong thing or taking a good outcome for granted is another example of this thinking.

We’re particularly likely to engage in superstitious thinking when the chances of something bad happening are high. Hutson calls this “error management"—in times of stress, we want to do everything we can to avoid harm. The more stressed or worried you are about having something bad happen to you, the more likely you are to try to move the odds in your favor. Some studies suggest, moreover, that believing that an object or thought is lucky can actually help you to be more successful. For example, participants who were told that they’d been given a lucky golf ball actually sank their putts more than did people who didn’t receive this false information. It’s possible that this belief in luck causes people to perform better because their inner self-confidence was boosted, even if only for bogus reasons.

4. The mind knows no bounds.

Still convinced you’re a rational being? Let’s put this next belief to the test. As I mentioned earlier, we are often impressed by the apparent coincidence that occurs when a person we’re thinking about suddenly contacts us. For just that moment, we believe the event “proves” that we’re psychic. The more often this happens, the more likely we are to be convinced of our mind’s special powers. One reason we fall for this mental trap is the illusory correlation. A second is that we’re lousy statisticians. We count the hits but not the misses. How many times has your heart ached for an ex-lover to call or email you, only to be met with silence? If you were to keep an honest record of every single instance that your thoughts brought about such a result vs. the times they didn’t, you’d undoubtedly come out with a whoppingly low proportion of hits. Another manifestation of this rule: Our tendency to believe that if we think positive thoughts about a person in trouble, our thoughts can truly help that person, even if he or she is thousands of miles away from us.

5. The soul lives on.

On a more serious note, Hutson takes on belief in the afterlife from as much a philosophical as an empirical perspective. Even if you’re not into Cartesian dualism (the idea that the mind and body are two separate entities), you might find interesting the notion that even by the age of 3, children realize that an imagined cookie can’t be eaten. They also know that you can only think of, and never see, a flying dog or a talking flower. Why, then, do adults hold on so stubbornly to the belief that the mind can continue even after its seat (the brain) is no longer alive? The answer, in part, comes from the terror that we feel about death, captured in Ernest Becker's groundbreaking book, The Denial of Death. It’s our desire to avoid thinking about our own mortality that leads us, according to Becker, to invent and hold onto a belief in the afterlife. Following from Becker’s work, research based on Terror Management Theory carried out over the past few decades has shown that increasing people’s awareness of mortality leads them to shore up their personal defenses against feelings of anxiety. Even feeling identification with your favorite brand name product may be a way of protecting yourself from confronting your mortality.

6. The world is alive.

Adults are supposed to grow out of the stage that Piaget called “preoperational” thinking—basically, the logic of a child between the ages of about 4 and 7. However, as Hutson shows, we share the young child’s belief in animism, which is one key feature of preoperational thought. In other words, we attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones. This is because we over-apply what’s known as the theory of mind, the process we use to understand and predict what other people are going to do. We read into the faces of our pets all sorts of human emotions such as humor, disappointment, and guilt. If our latest technological toy misbehaves, we yell at it and assume it has some revenge motive it needs to satisfy. Experiments testing our animistic tendencies show that we even impute human-like emotions to simple moving shapes. In one study, college students watched a film in which three shapes moved around on a screen. The majority of them described the action of the shapes in human terms. So the next time you look at the “man in the moon,” you might ask yourself why you have this strong need to assume that an object in space has human qualities.

7. Everything happens for a reason.

The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us. These are the thoughts that go through your head when, for example, you miss a bus that would have gotten you to a job interview on time, and because you missed it, you didn’t get the job but you did meet a person on the bus who you ended up going out with, who now has become your lifelong partner, and you then moved to a new home, and had two children who never would existed—if you hadn’t missed that bus. OK, maybe this hasn’t exactly happened to you, but I’m willing to bet that at some point in your life, you’ve gone through a line of reasoning that bears some similarity to this chain. Perhaps your home was spared (or not) during a tornado, fire, or other disaster. Why were you spared (or not) while other people have the opposite outcome? As Hutson points out, “Coincidences…are the manna of magical thinking” (p. 207). They play a central role in the theory of Carl Jung, who referred to seemingly meaningful coincidences as examples of the law of “synchronicity.” It’s due to our belief in coincidences that we read patterns into events that have no intentional design. For the same reason, we believe in luck, fate, and chance. Even people who study magical thinking are prone to believing that events over which we have no control are in some ways predestined.

It’s almost impossible not to read patterns into the random events in our lives. To do so gives us a sense of control, even if that sense of control is only illusory.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

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