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 naïve, 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?