Magical Thinking

There is an interesting article in Psychology Today regarding Magical Thinking and though one should read it in its entirety, I’ll also post some snippets.

1. Anything can be sacred.
What makes something sacred is not its material makeup but its unique history. And whatever causes us to value essence over appearance becomes apparent at an early age. Psychologists Bruce Hood at Bristol University and Paul Bloom at Yale convinced kids ages 3 to 6 that they’d constructed a “copying machine.” The kids were fine taking home a copy of a piece of precious metal produced by the machine, but not so with a clone of one of Queen Elizabeth II’s spoons—they wanted the original.

2. Anything can be cursed.
Essences are not always good. In fact, people show stronger reactions to negative taint than to positive. Mother Teresa cannot fully neutralize the evil in a sweater worn by Hitler, a fact that fits the germ theory of moral contagion: A drop of sewage does more to a bucket of clean water than a drop of clean water does to a bucket of sewage. Traditional cleaning can’t erase bad vibes either. Studies by Rozin and colleagues show that people have a strong aversion to wearing laundered clothes that have been worn by a murderer or even by someone who’s lost a leg in an accident.

3. Mind rules over matter.
Wishing is probably the most ubiquitous kind of magical spell around, the unreasonable expectation that your thoughts have force and energy to act on the world. Emily Pronin and colleagues at Princeton and Harvard convinced undergrads in a study that they had put voodoo curses on fellow subjects. While targeting their thoughts on the other students, hexers pushed pins into voodoo dolls and the “victims” feigned headaches. Some victims had been instructed to behave like jackasses during the study (the “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed” T-shirt was a nice touch), eliciting ill will from pin pushers. Those who dealt with the jerks felt much more responsible for the headaches than the control group did. If you think it, and it happens, then you did it, right? Pronin describes the results as a particular form of seeing causality in coincidence, where the “cause” is especially conspicuous because it’s hard to miss what’s going on in your own head.

4. Rituals bring good luck.
To witness the mindless repetition of actions with no proven causal effect, there’s no better laboratory than the athletic field.
We use ritual acts most often when there is little cost to them, when an outcome is uncertain or beyond our control, and when the stakes are high—hence my communion with the fuselage. People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as “illusion of control,” the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it’s not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as “depressive realism,” haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

5. To name is to rule.
Just as thoughts and objects have power, so do names. Language’s ability to dredge up associations acts as a spell over us. Piaget argued that children often confuse objects with their names, a phenomenon he labeled nominal realism. Rozin and colleagues have demonstrated nominal realism in adults. After watching sugar being poured into two glasses of water and then personally affixing a “sucrose” label to one and a “poison” label to the other, people much prefer to drink from the “sucrose” glass and will even shy away from one they label “not poison.” (The subconscious doesn’t process negatives.)

6. Karma’s a bitch.
Belief in a just world puts our minds at ease: Even if things are beyond our control, they happen for a reason. The idea of arbitrary pain and suffering is just too much for many people to bear, and the need for moral order may help explain the popularity of religion; in fact, just-worlders are more religious than others. Faith in cosmic jurisprudence starts early. Harvard psychologists showed that kids ages 5 to 7 like a child who found $5 on the sidewalk more than one whose soccer game got rained out

7. The world is alive.
To believe that the universe is sympathetic to our wishes is to believe that it has a mind or a soul, however rudimentary. We often see inanimate objects as infused with a life force.Lindeman Marjaana, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki, defines magical thinking as treating the world as if it has mental properties (animism) or expecting the mind to exhibit the properties of the physical world. She found that people who literally endorse phrases such as, “Old furniture knows things about the past,” or, “An evil thought is contaminated,” also believe in things like feng shui (the idea that the arrangement of furniture can channel life energy) and astrology. They are also more likely to be religious and to believe in paranormal agents.

In the end they also list the benefits of magical thinking and how some magical thinking has indeed proved somewhat correct!!

Who are WE to say the dreamers have it wrong? Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin point out that many magical beliefs have gained some element of scientific validity:

  • Magical contagion: Germ theory has shown that we have reason to fear that something invisible and negative can be transmitted by contact. Bacteria are the new curses.
  • Holographic existence: The idea that the whole is contained in each of its parts is born out by biology. Every cell in your body contains all of the DNA needed to create an entire person.
  • Action at a distance: Can voodoo dolls and magic wands have an impact? Well, gravitational pull works at a distance. So do remote controls, through electromagnetic radiation.
  • Mind over matter: The placebo effect is well-documented. Just thinking that an inert pill will have a medical effect on you makes it so.
  • Mana: Mana is the Polynesian term for the ubiquitous concept of communicable supernatural power. There is indeed a universally applicable parcel of influence that is abstract and connects us all: money.

Overall, an interesting piece indeed.

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