Magical thinking and feelings of control

A recent article in Science Magazine relates Magical thinking to feelings of control. It is an interesting paper and here is the abstract:

We present six experiments that tested whether lacking control increases illusory pattern perception,which we define as the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli. Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions. Additionally, we demonstrated that increased pattern perception has a motivational basis by measuring the need for structure directly and showing that the causal link between lack of control and illusory pattern perception is reduced by affirming the self. Although these many disparate forms of pattern perception are typically discussed as separate phenomena, the current results suggest that there is a common motive underlying them.

More discussion of the studies can be found at Mind Hacks and Psychology Today Blog Brainstorm
To me, it is exciting that Magical thinking  and feelings of control are linked together. It is my thesis that Manic episodes and frank psychosis are marked by presence of Magical Thinking to a large and  non-adaptive degree.  Sometimes severe depression too causes Psychosis and I presume that Magical thinking in that case too may be increased. If so, one of the frameworks for understanding depression is that of learned helplessness paradigm , whereby mice are exposed to uncontrollable shocks and then do not even try to avoid the shocks , even after the external environment has changed and they could now possibly avoid them by correct behaviour. One explanation for psychosis in severe depression may be that feelings of lack of control rise to such a level that one starts indulging in Magical thinking and starts creating and seeing patterns that are not there and thus loosing touch with Reality. 
This raises another question of whether Manic psychosis may itself be due to the same stress and feelings of non-control, but this time not leading to Depression but Mania. We all know that bipolarity is a stress-diatheisis model and maybe whenever stress causes feelings of lack of control the bipolar people have a tendency to exaggerated magical thinking: When mood is good this may lead to Manic psychosis; while when mood is low the same magical thinking may lead to depressive psychosis. Does anyone know any literature on bipolar people being more magical thinkers? does the same reason also work well for them and endow them with creativity? Another related question would be whether bipolar people have more feelings of being out of control? And what about self-esteem, do those in Mania , who get psychosis, also suffer from lack of self-esteem and this is mediated by the role of self-esteem in protecting against magical thinking? 

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3 thoughts on “Magical thinking and feelings of control

  1. Theresa

    Feelings of helplessness are absolutely involved in the depressive side of bipolar disorder. I can definitely identify with those mice. The theory that it may also be involved in manic episodes interests me. The irony in it is that when manic(personal experience)one feels completely in control. The word ‘invincible’ comes to mind. At the time, self-esteem is at a peak, as is energy and thinking. The ride up the roller-coaster is great, it’s when you reach the pinnacle and start speeding down that the problems arise. Thinking becomes too rapid. It’s like an electrical storm going off in your brain. Lack of sleep causes flawed thinking and perception. Then once one is spiraling out of control, the helplessness returns leading to depression. At least this is my experience. I can’t speak for all beepers. I’m going to have to ponder whether helplessness leads to the mania, possibly a ‘to hell with it all’ mentality. Interesting theory.

  2. caz

    some interesting ideas, kind of a neural parallel to the reaction formation theory of mania -but given that stress appears to play the most significant role early on and decrease in significance for later episodes, do you think we begin to "learn" this as a response on a neural level and therefore become more & more likely to use it?

  3. Sandy G

    Caz, You may be right there. It may happen that over time reaction-formation (magical thinking and feelings of control in face of minor stress) may become ingrained and a habitual response and it may take less and less external stress to be able to trigger a relapse. There is definitely a 'learning' going on here. If the earlier response of magical thinking and psychosis 'worked' , use it again and again as a prepotent response strategy.

    It seems I never replied to your comment. Your experience of mania and depression is vivid and extremely insightful. I would love to hear from you again as to whether the lack of control leading to mania, fits your own experiences and constructs.

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