Sunday, September 14, 2008

Magical Thinking

In response to vjack’s post, “Promoting Reason and Critical Thinking” over at Atheist Revolution, I thought I would give it a shot. What better way than to talk about the opposite? Magical thinking is what makes religion the opiate of the masses. It is the core of misdirection and the black heart of those empty promises of wish-fulfillment that gives the pathological lies of religion such broad appeal. Magical thinking is strenuously promoted by a wide variety of self-interested parties because it makes people easier to control and manipulate. Magical thinking can be used to create mental shortcuts, broad and faulty associations, and stimulus-response triggers in those being manipulated. Among other things, it’s an engine of prejudice.

From Wikipedia:

“According to Frazer,[1] magical thinking depends on two laws: the law of similarity (an effect resembles its cause), and the law of contagion (things which were once in physical contact maintain a connection even after physical contact has been broken). These two laws govern the operation of what Frazer called "sympathetic magic", the idea that the manipulation of effigies or similar symbols or tokens can cause changes to occur in the thing the symbol represented. Typical examples of sympathetic magic include the use of voodoo dolls, and the fetishization of cargo cults. Others have described these two laws as examples of "analogical reasoning" (rather than logical reasoning). Magical thinking is a common phase in child development. From the age of a toddler to early school age children will often link the outside world with their internal consciousness, e.g. "It is raining because I am sad".”

I think there is something deeper going on. I doubt I’m the first to say this, but the reference is lost in a lifetime of reading. I think magical thinking was actually a survival skill in the early days of human development. Consider the world as it existed in pre-Bronze age civilizations. Lightning is magic. In order for lightning not to be magic, one must have an understanding of electricity, and static electricity, and electrical induction, and weather. One can pick up an electrical charge from rubbing animal fur, but in order to understand its nature requires the use of storage batteries and copper wire, or reasonable facsimile. This is why understanding the nature of lightning had to wait for the 18th Century. The hardware was not available to design the experiment. So what choice does a human mind have in a situation like that? The brain can obsess on its lack of understanding and/or remain bewildered. This state of mind often leads to indecision and immobility. The alternative is to chalk it up to magic, or some action of some anthropomorphized version of natural forces, and move on. As has often been pointed out, this is an explanation that is a non-explanation, but it serves as a frame of reference and allows one to stop thinking about it and act. That said actions might be wholly unproductive or cause the unnecessary sacrifice of virgins is only material in the long run. Short-term, “problem solved!” We still indulge in systems like this today when we use burial rituals to bury the emotional trauma of loss and move on.

Also from Wikipedia:

“Magical thinking is often intensified in mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), clinical depression or schizotypal personality disorder.[citation needed] In each it can take a different form peculiar to the particular illness. In OCD, it is often used in ritual fashion to ameliorate the dread and risk of various dangerous possibilities, regardless of whether it has real effects on the object of fear. It contributes more to peace of mind, in that the person now feels they can engage in a risky activity more safely.

This is not unlike magical thinking in non-afflicted individuals; lucky garments and activities are common in the sports world. It begins to interfere with life when those activities deemed risky are routine and everyday, such as meeting others, using a public toilet, crossing a busy intersection, or eating. It is important to note, however, that not all people with OCD engage in a strict form of magical thinking, as many are fully conscious that the rationalizations with which they justify their obsessions or compulsions to themselves and others are not 'reasonable' in an ordinary sense of that word.

There is a correlation between psychosis and magical thinking. It has been found that those who scored highest on magical thinking showed a predisposition to psychosis (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983). Research has also shown that paranormal beliefs, including magical thinking, are correlated with people experiencing psychosis from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (e.g., Thalbourne and French, 1995).”

So what does this say about the rest of us? The ones who don’t cross the line into mental illness but show these same tendencies? To me, it says we are hard-wired to believe in some confluence between our lives and statistical probability called “luck”. It says there is a built-in short cut in our thinking that takes over in the face of contradictory information, or when we lack sufficient data. It tells me that there is a good reason that ignorance is extolled as a virtue by those that use this built-in system in others for their own financial gain. This is the system, and the social mechanisms in place to exploit it, that one must compete against when advocating rational thinking.


At 5:31 PM, Blogger vjack said...

Excellent! Magical thinking is clearly operating in the case of religion. It is a well-known form of irrationality that affects believers in some interesting ways.

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have cut me to the quick. I don't think I can even talk to you about this one. Dwell on it.

At 6:21 PM, Blogger John T. said...

Heres some magical thinking for ya. One day we will know everything about our physical world, because Science will figure it out. ;)

At 7:47 AM, Blogger breakerslion said...

vjack: Thank you. I have hurt some feelings with this post, so let me point out that irrationality can have a place in raising the quality of one's life, and in creating those flashes of intuition that sometimes circumvent years of research. My beef is with the people and organizations that mine this human trait and encourage its over-use as a substitute for critical thinking.

anonymous, per our conversation off line:

I do believe that, at least in part, one creates one's own reality - with a hell of a lot of help from everyone and every thing that impinges.

I did not call magical thinking psychotic. I was quoting what I thought to be reputable sources with statistical information to back them up on the subject of magical thinking as it manifests itself in the mentally ill. These are not my observations. I have known several mentally ill people personally, and spent time as a visitor in more than one mental ward. My observation is that mentally ill people are just like us, only more so. That might sound cynical to you, so I'll put it another way: there is a gradient, and where the line gets drawn is arbitrary, except for the part about public safety.

That you had the reaction that you did tells me that the essay was badly edited. There were a couple of big chunks that did not make the cut. One was about the fact that we humans are all at the center of our own sensory universe, and the need to reconcile that perspective with "social reality" as we grow up. While this does not directly address the problems you had with this post, I went on to point out how this transition in understanding gets exploited by self-serving individuals and groups as they compete to indoctrinate followers with their particular mythological world view. We are not, for the most part, left to our own devices in this reconciliation, but rather "sold" an alternative.

I know there are things out there that I can't explain. The world needs mystery, it's what keeps us looking for answers. Sometimes we don't get the answers we expect. Alchemy gave us Chemistry. Chemistry gave us Penicillin and Mustard Gas among a lot of other things. The world will always be a two-edged sword, knowledge just refines the blade. Nobody wanted Uri Geller to be on the level more than I did (except maybe Uri himself), but he wasn't. Nobody wanted Kirilian photography to be a breakthrough more than I did, but it wasn't. Lightning was magic once upon a time. Some magic is imaginary, other magic is just things we don't have a handle on. If and when someone designs an experiment that can quantify the effect of Sympathetic Magic, trap the lightning in the bottle so to speak, I will gladly expand my world view to include it as defined reality. Until then, it is undefined, and all I can say is, "I can't know if this is real." What I do know to be real is a long history of outright fakery used to simulate results. Because of this, I can't give actual magic the benefit of the doubt, so my world-view must exclude it until some measurable proof exists.

john t: You call it magical thinking, I call it optimism.

At 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for our conversations of today. I am feeling much better this evening. I know you may think I am a crazy person for a lot of reasons, but at least it's a sort of crazy you can relate to and hopefully live with.


At 9:51 PM, Blogger handmaiden said...

I just got around to reading this post. As one who grew up around & indoctrinated into magical thinking, I could really relate to this article.

I see the members of my family who indulge in magical thinking as using it to escape reality. I think you touched on this as a primitive way to reconcile oneself to things they don't understand.
Anyway, I see it as being a destructive force in my family because the ones who burrow their head in the sand this way, are really held back in the way that their potential is not reached.
Good post, it's helped me to understand my family a little bit more.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger BEAST FCD said...

I like magical thinking.

Like, T-Rexes eat blueberries, Adam lived a thousand years, pigs do fly, and so on.



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