I’ve been hearing the phrase “magical thinking” for a few years now, ever since I began to take an interest in what skeptics were saying about alternative medicine. It’s generally a derogatory term, the ‘magical’ bit seeming to be the antithesis of sensible science, which uses “critical” thinking.(1) And then just recently, I noticed the phrase dropping into political discourse. In an off the record briefing, a senior EU official dismissed the government’s proposals for an invisible Northern Ireland border as “magical thinking”, implying it was a kind of more fantastical version of wishful thinking. The phrase clearly made an impact, and achieved a brief ten minutes of fame. Another MP and indeed the Leader of the Opposition were similarly accused of “magical thinking” over various Brexity things . So I decided I ought to get a better grasp on the actual definition, to understand exactly what the accusation was. And in the process I found not one definition, but a fertile field of intriguing insights and meanings, of which I’ve picked out a few themes.
I don’t think I’d heard the word “causation” that much before I came across CauseHealth, but now it’s everywhere! One’s (usually unconscious) view of cause and effect underpins an awful lot of beliefs, and consequently our actions and choices.
Wikipedia says that in the anthropological field, magical thinking can describe” the attribution of causality between entities grouped with one another or similar to one another.” Think reflexology points, coincidence, star signs, phrenology, homeopathy, rituals, voodoo dolls, superstition, …
Alex Lickerman in Psychology Today defines magical thinking as believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation. “We won because I wore my lucky bracelet”…. The problem with this definition, however, is that exactly what constitutes “a plausible link of causation” can be difficult to pin down. People differ in what they consider to be a “plausible link of causation”. What’s plausible to one is laughably impossible to another. And this is, in some ways, the invisible border of the dispute between skeptics and alternative health practitioners. I listened to an experiment on a radio show in which the DJ, to his astonishment, located water using a divining rod. The skeptic in the room claimed that the DJ had been (unconsciously) influenced by incredibly (unconscious) subtle signs from people around him, which then caused him to (unconsciously) manipulate the rods. To me, that Derren Brown level of sensitivity and influence unconsciously at work is as implausible as divining rods knowing where water is, so it seems to me that sometimes it comes down to what you prefer to believe.
Osteopaths are so used to considering emotional states, life circumstances and past physical and psychological traumas as causative agents that we forget that even these things still seem implausible links of causation to many. Indeed I know someone who was amazed to consider that her adopted brother’s severely abusive childhood might somehow be related to his trust problems in adulthood. “But that was so long ago, surely it can’t still be having an effect..”, she said.
If we were to take this phrase, “plausible link of causation,” to its logical extreme, says Lickerman, we’d have to consider a belief in anything that hasn’t been shown to be plausible by being scientifically proven, to represent magical thinking. On the other hand, rejecting the use of any and all criteria with which to judge cause and effect leaves us vulnerable to believing that anything can cause anything. A more nuanced definition of magical thinking might be, he says:
Person-centred magical thinking
A slightly more self-centred version of causation, magical thinking can also refer to the belief that one’s thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world, or that thinking corresponds with doing. This seems to be a natural way for children to think – they believe that they can overcome obstacles with their will, make things happen by wishing for them, and they also believe that magical beings exist. My 11 year old son (who acts like he’s auditioning for Young Sheldon (2),) recently announced that if he had to pretend to believe in the tooth fairy to get a pound under his pillow, he’d rather go without, thank you very much. He takes pride in knowing that “magic doesn’t exist.” It’s a rite of passage; he’s grown up. However when he grows up a bit more he’ll find that the adult world has not, after all, totally grown out of magical ideation. Think Disney’s wishing upon a star, spells, prayer, the power of intention, the power of attraction (as made hugely popular by the Oprah-promoted, best-selling, self-help book The Secret), Cosmic Ordering…. I have come across a lot of this kind of thinking in the self-help world, the motivational speaker world, alternative health world, spiritual healing world, twelve-step world – “If I can’t find a parking space I just visualize one and one will always appear”, “I sent healing and the next day she told me that the swelling had completely disappeared overnight”, “I imagined money pouring into my pockets and the next day I received an unexpected payment” and so on. There is even an oft-quoted idea that wishing is so powerful that one has to be “careful what you wish for”. Think it through, people. We all know what happened to King Midas.
The flipside of the belief in the power of the good wish, is the belief that negative thoughts can cause harm (think voodoo dolls, the evil eye). “Ill-wishing” in medieval times was thought to be very dangerous, as the negativity you sent would only bounce back and harm you. (3)
Wishing ill on someone still instinctively feels to be a bad thing to do, if only because it means you are a person subsumed with negative feelings, and clearly wasting your time feeling hostile towards others rather than doing something positive with your own life.
(As a slightly relevant aside, I’m vividly reminded of a patient who explained sheepishly how he’d injured his foot. He’d been at a corporate team-building event and a speaker told them that if they treated anything badly, including inanimate objects, the negativity would come back and cause them harm. Standing outside the conference room at coffee break, he scoffed to his mates that if that were true, it would mean if he kicked the stone that lay in front of him, it would come back to bite him, at which point he kicked it only to find it was cemented into the ground, and he broke his toe.)
Do thoughts and feelings have substance?
Presumably the question of whether thinking about something can actually cause things to occur in the external world hinges on whether thoughts and feelings and wishes actually have some kind of substance, however fine, like radio waves, or something a bit more quantum, and a mechanism of travel and action whereby they can affect things at a distance of space and time. I personally wouldn’t rule this out, but as far as I know whatever thoughts and prayers and feelings might consist of has not currently been able to be objectively detected and measured.
When magical thinking goes bad
There’s a danger in relying on magic at the expense of practical effort or old-fashioned common sense – wishing to get a first in your degree, or chanting an incantation to have a beautiful garden, is not going to work if you don’t also put some work in. This is the criticism that skeptics make about alternative medicine – OK, colour therapy, or wishing, or chanting, is clearly not intrinsically harmful, and could be terrifically helpful for some people in certain circumstances, but if you rely on it for meningitis or an acute kidney infection, your choice is clearly quite dangerous. I remember the tragically ironic situation of a woman on a personal finance programme who had spent thousands of pounds on psychic phone lines trying to find guidance out of her debt problems (4).
Magical thinking can also be outright pathological. Matthew Hutson in Psychology Today says people who endorse magical ideation, (anything from avoiding cracks on the pavement once in a while, to thinking aliens are controlling you through your radio) are more likely to have schizophrenia or psychosis or develop it later in their lives. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder also exhibit the belief that negative thoughts can cause harm and they might perform rituals to ward off consequences.
Magical thinking as a temporary coping mechanism
It is likely that magical thinking in adults can happen for a beneficial reason, maybe having a protective psychological function. Magical thinking often kicks in when we are feeling helpless about a situation. By performing a ritual, making a wish, or otherwise assigning belief in a power outside of ourselves and the rational world, we get a feeling that maybe the outcome of the situation isn’t entirely out of our control, enabling us to feel more positive and optimistic, which may in turn make us feel more inclined to take non-magical action to sort something out. So maybe it should be an occasional mental mechanism that gives us hope or confidence, but out of which we can easily switch when more logical behavior is needed. (4)
Magical thinkers have more fun
“To be totally ‘unmagical’ is very unhealthy,” says Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich, and a very cheery looking soul who writes papers with titles like Superstitiousness in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is “interested in body and self, space, time and number and their respective distortions”. In Psychology Today he says that he sees skepticism as the other end of the spectrum from magical thinking, and you might not want to be there when you look at his research. Data strongly links lack of magical ideation to the inability to experience pleasure (anhedonia). Maybe being so sensible and right and rational the whole time takes a toll on your mood.
Magical thinkers have more dopamine
Dopamine is a key transmitter involved in magical thinking, as the brain uses it to tag experiences as meaningful. Brugger has found that dopamine floods the brains of schizophrenics, who see significance in everything. However it is only a trickle in many depressives, who struggle to find value in everyday life. In one experiment, paranormal believers (the high dopamine group) were more prone than nonbelievers to spot nonexistent faces when looking at jumbled images. They had a better hit rate of the faces that were actually there, too. Everyone spotted more faces when given dopamine-boosting drugs. Brugger argues that the ability to see patterns and make associations, (that more rational thinkers don’t normally perceive), enhances creativity and serves practical functions. (6) Magical thinkers might sometimes see things that aren’t there, but rational thinkers miss things that are.
Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin point out that many magical beliefs have gained some element of scientific validity:
Curses: Think bacteria, computer viruses… something invisible and negative can be transmitted.
Holographic existence: the whole is in every part.. every cell in your body contains all of the DNA needed to create an entire person
Action at a distance: gravitational pull works at a distance; so do remote controls, through electromagnetic radiation.
Mind over matter: the good old placebo effect.
Some thoughts to end on
From what I’ve read,
- a little bit of magical thinking in your life can be good, and is associated with creativity, fun and seeing patterns and connections that other people miss,
- magical thinking seems to be natural in children (aged about 2-7), and a not-unusual feature of some “in-extremis” states (e.g. grief),
- what you personally consider to be magical thinking might sometimes be a matter of what you personally find plausible,
- if magical thinking interferes with healthy life functioning, it’s probably a good idea to seek a bit of (non-magical) help, as it can be a feature of mental illness, or stop you dealing sensibly with real life problems.
(1) The world magic is derived from words meaning hidden powers (magique, magikos), learned or priestly class (magi)
(2) Closely related to the Big Bang Theory. E4, Thursday nights, 8.30pm. Quite funny.
(3) Henrik Ibsen’s play “Master Builder” is an interesting exploration of this phenomenon. Architect Solness believes he made his dream career come true by wishing, so when his wife’s ancestral home burns down he is tormented by the thought he might have caused this by wishing it so (he wanted this very thing to happen so he could sell the plot off to developers to build flats – in the 1890s! nihil mutat).
(4) Unreliably remembered from Alvin Hall’s “Your Money or Your Life” shown on the BBC some time ago.
(5) in Joan Didion’s acclaimed autobiographical book “The Year of Magical Thinking” , she talks about the altered state she finds herself in following her husband’s death, and details irrational thoughts and acts such as hanging onto his shoes in case he needed them when he came back.
Thanks for reading, I’m off to clarify what I want in life by blowing on some dandelions.