What’s So Magical about Magical Thinking?By Jill Suttie | November 13, 2012 | 2 comments
A new book argues that humans have evolved for superstition—and that it can provide some mental and physical health benefits.
After the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010, first baseman Audrey Huff stood onstage at the City Hall Plaza and took off his lucky red rally thong. He’d worn that same pair of underwear (presumably washed) for all of the post-season games, refusing to wear another until the World Series was over. Considering the Giants’ winning season, Huff must have thought the effort well worth it.
As a skeptic (or maybe a less enthusiastic team supporter), I tend to laugh at these superstitious rituals. How could a grown man believe that wearing a red thong makes any difference? But, to be honest, I wear the same pair of orange earrings to every Giants game, succumbing to superstition just like the rest of the fans and players.
What’s going on here? According to Matthew Hutson, author of the new book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, we humans are prone to this kind of magical thinking, like believing objects have special powers. Even the most skeptical among us can’t escape magical thinking in one form or another, he claims, whether it’s believing in luck, assigning personalities to inanimate objects, or venerating our national flag. And, it may be that this kind of thinking serves an important purpose.
According to Hutson, magical thinking involves our minds blurring the lines between objective reality and subjective experience. For example, he writes that many people believe that personal belongings carry the “essence” of their owners. So, when researchers ask people how they’d feel about owning and wearing a sweater once worn by Hitler, most people say they’d be repulsed by the idea, as if the sweater were tainted. Similarly, married people often believe their wedding rings are imbued with special qualities, so that even an exact replica of their ring just wouldn’t feel the same.
Hutson writes that magical thinking probably exists because it’s evolutionarily advantageous. For example, the magical belief that one’s mind can control things it can’t—i.e., positive thinking will bring you wealth or love—can give people a sense of agency, make them more active participants in life, and reduce their anxiety about the future, all of which may actually help bring about the desired results.
Not only that, but, “Believing that positive thoughts work wonders will lead you to have more of them, bringing all those proven benefits of optimism and positive visualization”—another good reason to engage in it.
Of course, magical thinking can have a downside as well. It can make us vulnerable to con men who sell things or ideas that have no real value. And, in some cases, ill people might forego life-saving medication, believing they can cure themselves through the power of positive thinking or the prayer of those who live far away.
But how dull life would be if we didn’t have some form of magical thinking. Belief that you have a higher purpose in life or feeling one with the universe can buoy us and give us hope and energy.
And seriously, the 2010 World Series would have been a lot less entertaining without believing in the magic of Huff’s rally thong.
About The Author
Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.