(Time Healthland) Q&A: Why Superstition and ‘Magical Thinking’ Have Real Benefits
Can superstitious beliefs — like having a lucky outfit, avoiding black cats or knocking on wood — actually be useful? That’s what journalist Matthew Hutson argues in The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane.
Healthland spoke with Hutson about the power and peril of these ideas.
What is magical thinking?
The technical definition I use is the “attribution of mental properties to non-mental phenomena or vice versa” — treating the natural world as if it had elements of mind or consciousness, or treating your own thoughts as if they could have a physical influence on the world.
What’s an example of magical thinking?
For instance, believing that your thoughts can affect reality directly through wishing or the law of attraction. If you think something and then it happens, often you feel a little bit responsible. You see your thought as the cause of the event. Another example is believing that certain things were meant to happen, in divine intervention.
Why are people so prone to these types of beliefs?
One common underlying factor is the tendency to see patterns in the world. We often see patterns when they aren’t there, and if we see a pattern between what’s going on inside our heads and outside in the world, if an event happens that has particular meaning, you might draw the conclusion and think that the event occurred in order to send your life down a particular path or communicate a message.
Was this tendency to see patterns everywhere helpful to survival during evolution?
There are advantages to it. It’s tough to say whether it’s an adaptation or a byproduct of other adaptive cognitive tendencies.
A couple of benefits are a sense of control and a sense of meaning. We have lots of superstitions like knocking on wood, crossing our fingers or wearing a lucky T-shirt that give an illusory sense of control.
You say these rituals can actually help.
There is one study where people were given a golf ball and asked to make 10 putts. Half were told that the ball was lucky and these people made 35% more successful putts than the others did.
So, are you saying that books like The Secret, which claim that we can get what we want just by having positive thoughts — that we can cure cancer by being more hopeful, for instance — are correct?
Belief in The Secret is not all bad. It can be thought of as a heuristic. The law of attraction does work, just not through mystical means. There are positive effects to optimism and positive visualization. It helps you achieve your goals and if you act a certain way, people will respond to that. If you act confident, people will treat you as competent and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But that doesn’t cure cancer. You can’t think away your cancer. I would say that magical thinking can be beneficial in situations where you do have some amount of control, where your thoughts can influence your behavior, which can influence reality. In cases where thoughts cannot influence anything, it’s powerless and can lead you down dangerous paths.
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