Monday, September 07, 2009

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking is when a person believes in a process that breaks the currently understood rules of our physical and psychological sciences. For example, believing that “Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day” works. Magical thinking is a common characteristic of what Jean Piaget called the “Preoperational Stage” of mental development, which occurs between the ages of 2 and 7.

Piaget believed that children grew out of magical thinking but we know today that most adults still show elements of it. Anyone who carries a good luck charm is exhibiting magical thinking. Superstitions, like the #13, the black cat, breaking a mirror, etc., are illustrations of magical thinking.

There are, of course, levels of magical thinking. Believing in ghosts is magical thinking but I don’t put it into the same category as “Rain, rain, go away.” The reason is that it is clear that humans don’t yet know all the rules that govern the natural world. Science could discover mechanisms that govern ghost phenomena, while I see no chance of that happening for phrases like “Rain, rain…”

Even though some apparently “magical” phenomena may turn out to have a basis in reality, there is little doubt that society is better served by limiting magical thinking. It certainly should not be a part of the policy making process. And allowing magical thinking to creep into science would destroy the scientific process.

The problem for eliminating magical thinking is that humans are not really rational creatures. Almost everyone believes themselves to be rational. They are mistaken. No human is fully rational in all aspects of his or her life. The very structure of the brain works against it. I do believe, however, that most people can become aware of where they are being irrational, and adjust their behavior accordingly. We can, and should, take steps to minimize our irrationality in places where we need to apply reason.

For example, there is no rational reason why the Arkansas Razorbacks should be my favorite college football team. It’s irrational but causes no harm to anyone, as long as I don’t take it seriously enough to fight over. Some people, however, take loyalty to a sports team so seriously that they come to truly hate their opponents.

Politics is a particularly dangerous place to have magical thinking, and yet our political landscape is rife with it these days. It may be na├»ve, but it seems as if ‘some’ of the current plague of magical thinking could be minimized if people just took a deep breath and asked themselves: “Does that seem reasonable?”

Here are two examples.

The United States Government orchestrated the September 11th attack.

President Obama is not really an American citizen.

Do those statements really seem reasonable?

Certainly, even very bizarre things could be true. Processes that we think of as magical today might be explained scientifically tomorrow. But should we really waste a lot of mental effort on such things? Should we decide policy based upon the most irrational scenarios? Should we not at least recognize that we are being irrational, and proceed from that knowledge?

So, what’s your favorite “Does that seem reasonable” moment?


G. B. Miller said...

The New York Times slogan:

"All the news that's fit to print."

BernardL said...

If President Obama was not born in the United States, Hillary Clinton would have found the proof long ago. :)

Randy Johnson said...

I'll throw a bit of humor into the mix.
Take the A T & T commercial where the teenager throws away unused cell phone minutes. It takes real magical thinking to believe a teenager would EVER have minutes left at the end of the month.

Charles Gramlich said...

G, excellent one.

Bernardl, that's what I figured as well.

Randy, absolutely!

laughingwolf said...

can't prove the feds created the 9/11 attacks, but i've seen all kinds of evidence online showing questionable events blamed on those aircraft that are not possible

Mary Witzl said...

Nine isn't my lucky number. Yesterday we parked on level nine of the Manchester Airport parking lot. There were lots of 9s in my husband's flight to Istanbul. I got off exit 9 on the motorway, going home. And damned if I didn't have an awful time, too. I'm very superstitious, I'm afraid -- but I don't let it control my life. (Crossing fingers as I type this...)

Artsnark said...

Got to be honest - I don't find those 2 statements to count as "magical thinking" so much as willful ignorance

jodi said...

Charles, this one is easy. I am PETRIFIED of trolls, dwarfs, and gnomes. My son pointed out the irrasionality of being afraid of something not really real. I had never thought of it that way...

Travis Cody said...

Let's see...what's my version of magical thinking?

How about when I wear the same thing every weekend my team plays, believing it's going to help?

Erik Donald France said...

This is another great topic. The Moon shot "hoax" is one of those conspiracy/magical thinking notions.

I completely agree that in many ways, we live with Medieval filters. It becomes scarier when magical thinking gains traction and displaces reasonable discourse. Scapegoating is a form of magical thinking that can easily lead to violence.

Steve Malley said...

Every week at work I paint magicial talismans in people's skins: charms for virility, love, fertility, etc. Tattooist as modern shaman.

Personally, of course, I am completely rational. Completely.

My intricate daily rituals actually *are* necessary to keep Chaos at bay...

j said...

So are you saying that when I see that big orange T for the Vols and my lip curls... that is magical thinking? Or the fact that I won't eat orange and blue M&Ms together should make me ask "Does this seem reasonable?"

I'll have to consult my Nick Saban bobble head about this.


ivan said...

"Magical thinking" for the intellectual.
Jacques Berzun:
I have heard your argument appreciate the cogent quality of your logic and the elegance of your expression...And you are still full of shit."

sage said...

My lack of participation with magical thinking must be the cause of the Pittsburgh Pirates demise!

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, well, the gov could always use moments of crisis to even some scores. I'd be more likely to believe something like that.

Mary Witzl, I have my moments. I don't know that I have any lucky or unlucky numbers though. They all seem fairly unlucky.

ArtSnark, the magical thinking elements on the first one is that the government could cover up such a thing and get away with it.

jodi, all phobias are irrational at their heart, so it's not a big leap from there.

Travis, I've done that. Used to wear the same hat fishing every single time, until it fell apart.

Erik, indeed, another one that would be pretty difficult to cover up. But I think we live with a hunter/gatherer mind myself.

Steve Malley, yes, I'm sure they are. (Someone get the butterfly nets!)

jennifer, well we all know the power of blue M&Ms. That obeys scientific principles, I'm sure.

ivan, wisdom has a way of turning on the people who seek it out.

sage, you know that demise was due to the curse don't you? ;)

Heather said...

I went out to my car one morning to head to work and passed around the hood instead of around the trunk to get to the drivers door...this path allowed me to notice there was a penny on my windshield. I don't know why but that penny affected me emotionally and I tucked it lovingly into a wee pocket in the dash near my steering wheel so it will always be near whoever is driving. A talisman of sorts I guess. Your definition of 'magical thinking' perfectly describes this crazy action of mine which I still don't really understand myself :) Fantastic post Charles!

the walking man said...

The first time someone said there is no God or that God is dead are ideas that make no sense to me. But then I accept and embrace my irrationality.

Unknown said...

Ignorance could definitely be behind such theories, or perhaps those people simply don't have enough to do that's important in their lives. Seems like a waste of time to me.

Anonymous said...

Do you count prayer as magical thinking?

Charles Gramlich said...

H.E.Eigler, salient events like that can easily take on great import for humans. It's part of the way our minds work and it is not likely to cause any harm. Sometimes things like that can even be fun.

Mark, I don't know many folks who believe in God for scientific reasons. I find my personal thoughts on God changing from day to day, and sometimes moment to moment. It's not always an easy thing to wrap your head around. At least for me.

Gaston Studio, I think the "too much time on their hands" thing is a cause of a lot of our problems. Thinking is good, but thinking that disappears up its own ass? Not so much.

Cinnamon, I think prayer is irrational. But I still do it, and I don't apologize for it. However, I don't "just" pray. It's like the old saying, Pray to God but keep your powder dry. Humans are not primarily rational creatures. I don't think any of us could survive a life lived purely rationally. I believe it is important for us to recognize our irrationality. I don't believe it is necessary then to eliminate all examples of irrationality. If our irrationality makes us a better person, then we should be happy for it. But if it makes us a worse person, then we have a problem.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Is prayer magical thinking? I think it is, but I still do it.

Looking for the third bad thing to happen: do that all the time.

cs harris said...

Probably the magical thinking I'm most aware of in myself is when I think "not nice" thoughts about someone and then feel horrible for possibly bringing them harm, as if it would be my fault if it were to happen. I blame my Catholic school upbringing--all those years of being told God knows what I'm thinking. Although how I extrapolated from that into my thoughts actually causing events, I'm not sure. Again, perhaps being taught that prayers--essentially thoughts--can be answered? Religion is basically institutionalized magical thinking.

Rick said...

I had to think about this one Charles, but there is truly nothing more bizarre than people rationally deciding that they are irrational. That to me sounds irrational!

Lana Gramlich said...

Religion's my favorite. LEAST favorite, really.

Charles Gramlich said...

pattinase, see my comment to Cinammon just above. I do think it is irrational, but irrational does not necessarily mean bad or worthless.

Candy, I have that as well. I have a "feeling" at times that my thoughts will somehow manifest an effect. Maybe it was being raised Catholic, since I have the same experience.

Rick, I see your point, but I don't believe I can agree. I can understand rationally that I am irrational about football. It's all a matter of 'know thyself.'

Lana, my love for you is so intense that it's irrational, but I cherish it!

Cloudia said...

Could you please go and straighten out congress?


Comfort Spiral

Rick said...

I was just kidding, Charles! I'm more worried when someone irrational thinks their rational. Nice concept post, by the way.

Mariana Soffer said...

Very nice post, really interesting. My conclusion would be that we all have magical thinking, just like the ancient indian who invoked the rain with a dance did. Nothing has changed indeed.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, I'd be happy too. For a fee. :)

Rick, I always remember a favorite quote of mine from Spock. "Logic is a tweeting bird." He used it to burn out an an Android's logic circuits. Sometimes I feel like what little logic circuits I have will burn out with some of the stuff folks say.

Marianna, I agree that pretty much all humans show magical thinking. I think it's a matter of degree, and to what extent we recognize it. Sometimes, though, it indeed seems as if nothing has changed.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I'm kind of with my girl Jodi on this one -- there's a legend in Detroit about an evil dwarf in a tattered red coat that comes to deliver evil warning. I don't know why I believe it, but if I see an evil dwarf in a gnarly jacket, I'm running. I'm very about the magical thinking as far as superstitions -- my favorite one is a lucky penny, but it can be traced back to being poor as a kid and having to search for a dollar of pennies to go to the movies. My friends are still astonished by my ability to see a penny on the ground.

Aimlesswriter said...

We used to have a black cat.
We howl at the full moon.
When the kids were little they had a ritual "Snow Dance" they did when they didn't want to go to school the next day. They'd stand on the front lawn and do this dance and damned if it didn't snow 9 times out of 10. Magical? Who knows! But the kids were happy and they believed.
The other night my dd's new boyfriend was over and we were all sitting out on the back deck. Someone noticed a full moon and we all started howling.
You'd think the kid would take this as a warning.
Nothing wrong with Magical thinking as long as it's used for good and not evil.
Great post!

laughingwolf said...

no question of that, charles, gubbamints can, and do, dirty...

JR's Thumbprints said...

Magical thinking? How about an Oliver Stone movie? Would that count?

steve on the slow train said...

I'm not sure whether your two examples are really magical thinking, but wishful thinking. The "birthers" use a constitutional provision which limits the presidency to persons born in this country. They're willing to believe the fabrications about Obama's birth because they want to. Same with the 9/11 conspiracies. They're seemingly rational, until you do a little basic research.

I'm a magical thinker in many ways. Others have already mentioned religion, but what about True Love? It's magical and irrational, but I still believe in it.

Anonymous said...

thanks you for your thoughts on prayer :)

*still pondering SOTST's comment*

the walking man said...

I just came up with another thought of magical thinking..."The Detroit Lions will redeem themselves this year."

Greg said...

here's my favorite "does that seem reasonable moment" (although there are quite a few in American politics that rival this one):

Man turns into goat to evade arrest.

Greg said...

great post, by the way -- always found Piaget fascinating.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, we have that penny thing in common. Lana laughs at me all the time because I stop to pick up pennies or nickels I find on the ground. I’ve found a fair amount of money that way though. I like the dwarf story.

Aimless Writer, hum, could be that one person’s good was another person’s evil. ;) I’ve howled at the moon myself.

laughingwolf, Yes, I’m sure they do.

JR's Thumbprints, magically thinking it’s going to be good?

steve on the slow train, the chances that the 9/11 conspiracy and that Obama isn’t an American citizen are so slim that I don’t let one molecule of thought go toward them. They might make a good fictional story, though. I’d say love is pretty irrational but nothing wrong with being irrational. It’s just when we are irrational but convince ourselves otherwise that we have the problem.

Cinnamon, no problem!

Mark, we have a similar one here. “This is going to be the Saints’ year.”

Greg Schwartz, I once had a guy tell me he’d seen a man change into a wolf. Of course, he admitted there was a religious ritual going on complete with drugs and people dressed up in wolf outfits. I teach a fair amount of Piaget.

Heff said...

Let's give this a whirl....

"Before me please appear, an ice cold beer..."

Damn. Nothing.

Monkey Mama said...

This is the very basis of my second middle-grade book. The main character believes in magic. His best friend is the scientific/rational one.

LOL because your mention of Piaget brought back grad school memories!


Lisa said...

Hello Charles, thank you for your kind wishes.

CNN is running a program Health Care Myth-busters; Separating Spin from Reality. Sounds like there are a lot of magical thinking going around. I could hardly follow but notice there is a lot of emotions involve.

Lisa said...

Could you please pass this message to Rick: I would like to return a visit to his blogsite and I noticed from his e-mail address that we are in similar industry but I cannot go past the picture of the cat. It is part of my magical thinking.

Thank you Charles.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I have tried that with quite a few variations and little success. However, I once varied it slightly to "Bitch, get me a beer" and I ended up with a black eye! It was like magic, man.

Monkey Mama, yes, you need a straight guy! ;)

Ocean Girl, Well, Rick checks here so he should see it. I'll try to make sure he does. Yes, there is a lot of magical thinking to go around.