The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking

13 Nov

How much magical thinking do you engage in? Over at the mag Psychology Today there is an article on the “7 Laws of Magical Thinking”. Magical thinking is a necessary precursor to all religious thought. So the less magical thinking you engage in, the less likely it is that you are religious.

1. Objects carry essences. What’s your memorabilia collection like these days? According to this first rule, we attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire.

I admit that I might fail this one. I have some memorabilia that belongs to past friends and deceased loved ones that I don’t get rid of. I don’t think I keep them because I think they have some sort of superpowers, or confer me some sort of connection to them. I just keep them to remember good times we had together. If I actually did think it created some sort of connection between us, then I would probably get rid of them because some of these friends are actually former friends; people I refuse to talk to anymore, oddly enough.

2. Symbols have power. Humans have a remarkable tendency to impute meaning not only to objects but to abstract entities. We imbue these symbols with the ability to affect actual events in our lives. According to the principle known as the “law of similarity,” we equate a symbol with the thing it stands for. In one experiment testing this idea, people refused to throw a dart at a picture of their own mother’s face but were able to take dead aim at a photo of Hitler. They confused their mother’s image with their mothers. The law of similarity is also expressed as “like produces like.” If you want to roll a high number on a die, you should shake it harder.

I remember thinking like this when I was younger. I had a special marble that I would keep with me when I was 10 or 11 that I thought gave me good luck. And I remember getting a bit anxious when us kids would play the game “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” while walking along the streets in NYC after school.

The “like produces like” phenomenon also reminds me of how our minds work due to being an integral part of our bodies.

3. Actions have distant consequences. In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our seemingly unpredictable lives, we build up our own personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts. Hutson cites several compelling examples from the lore of fishermen (whose jobs are the deadliest in the U.S). The high stakes lead them to develop all sorts of complicated superstitious rituals. They don’t allow anyone to talk about horses, carry suitcases on board, or leave town on a Friday, to name a few examples.  They feel certain that violating any of these rules will cause severe injury if not loss of life.

This is classic post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

4. The mind knows no bounds. As I mentioned earlier, we are often impressed by the apparent coincidence that occurs when a person we’re thinking about suddenly contacts us. For just that moment, we believe the event “proves” that we’re psychic. The more often this happens, the more likely we are to be convinced of our mind’s special powers. One reason we fall for this mental trap is the illusory correlation, but a second is that we’re poor statisticians. We count the hits but not the misses. How many times has your heart ached for an ex-lover to call or email you, only to be met with silence and empty inboxes? If you were to keep an honest score in which you recorded every single instance that your thoughts brought about such a result versus those in which they didn’t, you’d undoubtedly come out with a whoppingly low proportion of true hits. Another manifestation of this rule is our tendency to believe that if we think positive thoughts about a person in trouble, our thoughts can truly help that person, even if that person is thousands of miles physically removed from us.

Again, more post hoc reasoning. Her entire paragraph on this point is cogent in and of itself. The part that I highlighted is really important to point out, as it is a form of selection bias, which, again, is a reason why people in general suck at probability.

5. The soul lives on. Even if you’re not into Cartesian dualism (the idea that the mind and body are two separate entities), you might find interesting the notion that even by the age of 3, children realize that an imagined cookie can’t be eaten. They also know that you can only think of, not see, a flying dog or a talking flower. Why, then, do adults hold on so stubbornly to the belief that the mind can continue even after its seat (the brain) is no longer alive? The answer, in part, comes from the terror that we feel about death, captured in the groundbreaking book, The Denial of Death.  It’s our desire to avoid thinking about our own mortality that leads us, according to Becker, to invent and hold onto a belief in the afterlife. Following from Becker’s work, research based on Terror Management Theory carried out over the past few decades has shown that increasing people’s awareness of mortality leads them to shore up their personal defenses against feelings of anxiety.

I know billions of people engage in this bit of magical thinking, but it is magical thinking nonetheless. You have to think that the mind runs on magic to conclude that the mind goes on after there are no more chemicals powering it and influencing behavior and preference. Every single motivation that you have is chemically induced. No more chemicals powering your mind = no motivation to do anything. No pathways to process light into images, noise into music, nothing. New memories can’t be formed, and old ones can’t be retrieved.

Biochemistry is the fuel that drives the engine of your brain. And if the connection between the fuel and the engine is severed, neither has any utility. You aren’t “you” unless you’ve got some chemistry acting upon your brain.

6. The world is alive. Adults are supposed to grow out of the stage that Piaget called “preoperational” thinking- which is basically the logic of the child between the ages of about 4 and 7. However, as Hutson shows, we share the young child’s belief in animism, which is one key feature of preoperational thought. In other words, we attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones. This is because we over-apply what’s known as the theory of mind, which is the process we use to understand and predict what other people are going to do. We read into the faces of our pets all sorts of human emotions such as humor, disappointment, and guilt.  If our latest technological toy misbehaves, we yell at it and assume it has some revenge motive it needs to satisfy.

What’s interesting about this one is that this “theory of mind” seems to increase in gain when people are depressed or lonely and is itself highly correlated with religiosity. Another way of describing it is hyperactive agency detection, which is responsible for many a ghost story.

7.  Everything happens for a reason. The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us. It’s the thoughts that go through your head when you, for example, miss a bus that would have gotten you to a job interview on time but because you missed it, you didn’t get the job, but you did meet a person on the bus who you ended up going out with, who now has become your lifelong partner, and you then moved to a new home, and then had two children who never would existed if you hadn’t missed that bus.  OK, that was a really long sentence, and maybe this hasn’t exactly happened to you, but I’m willing to bet that at some point in your life, you’ve gone through a line of reasoning that bears some similarity to this chain of events.

Magical thinking, in its most basic form, is thinking how children think. A person who believes in “fate” or “god’s will” or something is thinking like a child. An adult shouldn’t think in terms of destiny. They should think in terms of responsibility. Fate, or god’s will, is for people who don’t want to be held accountable for their actions… like children. Missing the bus and therefore not getting the job interview is your responsibility (or your lack of responsibility). It wasn’t your destiny.

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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in cognitive science


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