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magical thinking

"...magical thinking is "a fundamental dimension of a child's thinking." --Zusne and Jones

According to anthropologist Dr. Phillips Stevens Jr., magical thinking involves several elements, including a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend both physical and spiritual connections. Magical thinking invests special powers and forces in many things that are seen as symbols. According to Stevens, "the vast majority of the world's peoples ... believe that there are real connections between the symbol and its referent, and that some real and potentially measurable power flows between them." He believes there is a neurobiological basis for this, though the specific content of any symbol is culturally determined. (Not that some symbols aren't universal, e.g., the egg, fire, water. Not that the egg, fire, or water symbolize the same things in all cultures.)

One of the driving principles of magical thinking is the notion that things that resemble each other are causally connected in some way that defies scientific testing (the law of similarity). Another driving principle is the belief that "things that have been either in physical contact or in spatial or temporal association with other things retain a connection after they are separated" (the law of contagion) (Frazer; Stevens). Think of relics of saints that are supposed to transfer spiritual energy. Think of psychic detectives claiming that they can get information about a missing person by touching an object that belongs to the person (psychometry). Or think of the pet psychic who claims she can read your dog's mind by looking at a photo of the dog. Or think of Rupert Sheldrake's morphic resonance. Coincidentally, Sheldrake also studies psychic dogs.

According to psychologist James Alcock, "'Magical thinking' is the interpreting of two closely occurring events as though one caused the other, without any concern for the causal link. For example, if you believe that crossing your fingers brought you good fortune, you have associated the act of finger-crossing with the subsequent welcome event and imputed a causal link between the two." In this sense, magical thinking is the source of many superstitions. Alcock notes that because of our neurobiological makeup we are prone to magical thinking and that therefore critical thinking is often at a disadvantage. Think of the post hoc fallacy and the gambler's fallacy. Think of trying to make sense of or give meaning to coincidences.

Zusne and Jones (1989: 13) define magical thinking as the belief that

(a) transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place solely because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, or (b) that one's thought, words, or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information.

Two of the more obvious examples of magical thinking are Jung's notion of synchronicity and Hahnemann's notion of homeopathy (Stevens). Other examples would be applied kinesiology, graphology (Beyerstein), palmistry, and psychokinesis.

Other sciences have led us away from superstition and magical thinking; parapsychology, on the other hand, tries to lead us into it. Dean Radin (1997), a foremost apologist for parapsychology, notes that “the concept that mind is primary over matter is deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy and ancient beliefs about magic.” However, instead of saying that it is now time to move forward and give up the magical thinking of childhood, he rebuffs “Western science” for rejecting such beliefs as “mere superstition.”

See also animism, post hoc fallacy, placebo effect, regressive fallacy, subjective validation, sympathetic magic and vitalism.


further reading

Alcock, James E. (1981). Parapsychology: Science or Magic? Pergamon Press.

Alcock, J. (1995) "The Belief Engine," Skeptical Inquirer. 19(3): 255-263.

Beyerstein, Barry L. "Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work"

Beyerstein, Barry. "Graphology," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996), pp. 309-324. Read the article.

Beyerstein, Barry and Dayle F. Beyerstein, editors, The Write Stuff - Evaluations of Graphology, the Study of Handwriting Analysis (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).

Frazer, James George. (1911-1915). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3rd edition. London: Macmillan. Touchstone Books 1996.

Harrold, Francis B. and Raymond A. Eve (1995). Cult Archaeology & Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs About the Past. University of Iowa Press.

Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.

Radin, Dean (1997). The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins.

Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Rosengren, Karl S. et al. Editors (2000). Imagining the Impossible : Magical, Scientific, and Religious Thinking in Children. Cambridge University Press.

Stevens, Jr., Phillips. (2001) "Magical Thinking in Complementary and Alternative Medicine," Skeptical Inquirer. November/December.

Vyse, Stuart A. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (Oxford University Press 2000).

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1989).

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