Magical Thinking: Concept and Traits

April 8, 2019
Magical thinking is a fascinating human phenomenon. Read on ti discover what magical thinking is and why it isn’t always bad to believe something that isn't true.

Roald Dahl said that “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Interestingly enough, human beings have always tended to believe in magic. The subject of today’s article, magical thinking, stems from that human faith in the inexplicable.

We believe in the law of cause and effect. Thus, when something with no scientific explanation happens, people come up with other “magical” explanations for it. In fact, maybe this is why religions have survived throughout the ages in spite of the relentless scientific advances.

What is magical thinking?

Psychology and anthropology define magical thinking as the description of illogical attributions to certain causes without any empirical evidence.

This phenomenon is especially relevant when a person believes that their magical thoughts could have consequences on the external world. Said consequences can stem from their actions or the actions of supernatural forces.

A woman thinking representing magical thinking.

Nearly all of the world’s societies have magical thoughts. Magical thinking is a natural and probably biological process.

It’s easy to find examples of magical thinking. A child thinks that if they behave badly, a man in a suit is going to kidnap them. Certain cultures do ritualistic dances to make it rain or attribute the weather to a higher power.

“That’s the first law of magic, Specs. Misdirection. Don’t ever forget it.”

-Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch-

Causes of magical thinking

  • Continuity between events. Creating particular associations, like believing that a friend failed a test because you wished that they wouldn’t pass.
  • Associative thought. Establishing relationships based on similarities. For example, believing that the spirit of an animal will enter your body if you eat its heart.

Although these associations aren’t true, they can serve an important function in people’s lives. Here are two reasons why magical thinking is sometimes useful:

  • Magical thinking reduces anxiety. Associating stressful and difficult situations to arbitrary causes can make you feel more in control. As a result, you feel less anxious. One example is using amulets to protect yourself from something you’re afraid of.
  • The placebo effect. If you believe that doing a certain ritual or saying a certain prayer will cure an illness, then it might do just that.

Characteristics of magical thinking

People have magical thoughts nearly every day because it often makes them feel better. However, the problem comes when magical thinking brings distress or when that short-term relief becomes a long-term problem.

Egocentrism in children

Children between the ages of 2 and 7 (in the pre-operational phase) sometimes think they have the power to voluntarily or involuntarily change the world with their minds. They have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. It’s nearly impossible for a child of that age not to think they’re the center of the universe. For example, they might think that something bad will happen to their parents because they wished something bad would happen to someone.

As a result, children sometimes take the blame for things they had absolutely nothing to do with. This kind of egocentrism usually diminishes as they age.

A child pointing at imaginary images on a wall.

Superstition

Superstition and belief in the supernatural are quite common in our society. For example, in the Western world, the number thirteen is bad luck, whereby Japanese people believe the number four is unlucky.

These numbers are significant in our collective consciousness. Consequently, athletes won’t use those numbers on their jerseys and people don’t want to live on those floors in an apartment building.

Delusions

Magical thinking is also characteristic of psychotic or schizophrenic delusions.

At the end of the day, magical thinking is a kind of defense mechanism. When you have to deal with something that you can’t explain, your brain searches for an association that will calm the anxiety that stems from uncertainty. It doesn’t matter if the association is true because the important thing is that it makes you feel better.

“Magic is the art of thinking, not strength or language.”

-Christopher Paolini-