How often are you engaged in magical thinking?

Today is July 28 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you engaged in magical thinking?" Those who translate their dreams into reality seldom engaged in magical thinking. Magical thinking is the belief that one's ideas, thoughts, wishes, or actions can influence the course of events in the physical world. As Dr. John A. Johnson wrote in Psychology Today on February 17, 2018 “First, merely expecting something to happen will not make it happen.” Those who navigate the chaos understand that merely expecting something to happen will not make it happen as such magical thinking is reserved for children and, sadly, adults who lack the capacity for mature cognitive processing.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that young children have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective worlds in their heads and the outer, objective world. According to Piaget, children therefore sometimes believe that their thoughts can directly cause things to happen — for example, thinking angry thoughts about one’s little brother can cause him to fall down the stairs. Piaget referred to this as magical thinking and suggested that most individuals outgrow it by around seven years of age.

Children in the toddler stage are becoming more aware of what is around them and looking to make connections that answer their favorite question: Why? They are also in an egocentric stage of development, so it is easy for them to engage in magical thinking and believe that something they do—say, wearing a blue shirt—can have an effect on something totally unrelated, such as having good weather. Unfortunately, Piaget’s observation fell far short as additional research has demonstrated many normal adults continue to engage in various forms of magical thinking.

Superstitions are one example of magical thinking in adults. Athletes often follow certain rituals before competition as their magical thinking believes such a routine will have a positive outcome. Putting the right sock on first, eating a specific meal, or wearing the same shirt for an entire season are all examples of magical thinking adults engage in. There is even limited evidence to suggest activating superstitions may increase perceived self-effectiveness and have a corresponding improvement on performance. Far too often, however, magical thinking can be a cause for concern.

For example, people who suffer from OCD may engage in magical thinking and develop rituals, such as washing their hands multiple times in a row in the belief that doing this will give them an irrational amount of control over their environment. They may spend countless hours a day engaging in these behaviors and feel a high degree of anxiety and distress when they are not able to perform them. Moreover, a 2014 study published in the journal Cognitive Behaviour Therapy suggests that magical thinking may prop up harmful compulsive behaviors in people with OCD by mediating a cognitive bias that results from a distrust of the senses and a primary reliance on imagination.

Another illustration of the harmful effects of magical thinking can be found in The Law of Attraction (LOA). LOA states thoughts attract events. It is believed by many to be a universal law by which “Like always attracts like.” The results of positive thoughts are always positive consequences. The same holds true for negative thoughts, always leading to bad outcomes.

But the LOA is much more than generalizations: Thinking about red Lamborghinis will bring you red Lamborghinis—always. To the believers, questioning the validity of the LOA is akin to heresy and blasphemy; it creates religious fervor. To the uninitiated, it may seem silly to discuss even the possibility that such a law could exist. The LOA, however, is an example of magical thinking.

As Benedict Carey noted in "Do You Believe in Magic?" a January 23, 2007 New York Times article: “In a series of experiments researchers from Princeton and Harvard showed how easy it was to elicit magical thinking in well-educated young adults. In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively, and made most of the shots. On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success. A comparison group of participants, who had been instructed to visualize the player lifting dumbbells, was far less likely to claim such credit.”

As Dr. Neil Farber wrote in Throw Away Your Vision Board: The Truth About the Law of Attraction “the law of attraction does not work 99.9% of the time. In fact, believing in this ‘law’ may be detrimental to your health, inhibit your compassion for others, decrease your motivation, and lessen your chance of achieving goals.”

“The appetite for magical thinking, Carey wrote, “appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.”

In a 1937 speech at the Descartes conference in Paris, French philosopher and winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature Henri-Louis Bergson proclaimed: “I would say act like a man of thought and think like a man of action.” Action and thought work in tandem. Those who navigate the chaos understand this and realize magical thinking is best left for children.

How often do you engage in magical thinking?