Magical Thinking in a Modern World

Dr Jessica L. Paterson examines the logic behind superstition, religion, astrology and anti-vaccination. Is everything outside of science just ‘magical thinking’?

“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” While his primary aim was to make people laugh, this Groucho Marx quote nicely summarises the fundamental problem with magical thinking. That being, when you hear hoof beats, you should think horses – not zebras. This idea, known as ‘Occam’s razor’, or the law of parsimony, is a guiding scienti fic principle that stipulates the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. But we know by now that magical thinking has little to do with logic or science, and far more to do with personality type and some kind of unful filled psychological need. Magical thinking is a belief in causes of events that cannot logically be valid, and which violate basic limiting principles of science. Astrology, superstition and religion all rely on magical thinking, and are all subscribed to by otherwise rational people. So why do we want to believe in things that have no basis in science or logic? Is to make sense of seemingly senseless acts? Well perhaps, but in some cases it is magical thinking that leads to such acts in the first place. Let’s consider the anti-vaccination movement. The health and safety of one’s child evokes a primal protective instinct in parents. So why, for some, does the unfounded threat of harm from vaccination carry more in fluence than the very real threat of illness or death from preventable illnesses like measles or mumps? Then there is the recent case of ‘J’, a seven-year-old Brisbane boy suffering from severe liver disease and requiring a life-saving liver transplant that could include a blood transfusion. The hospital had to apply for an order to administer the transfusion and overrule his family’s belief in the Jehovah’s Witness edict that blood is sacred. The judge concluded that the “sanctity of J’s life, in the end, is a more powerful reason for me to make the orders than is respect for the dignity of beliefs so sincerely held by his parents and him”. The best theory for why people engage in magical thinking is probably that of di fferent reasoning styles. Magical thinkers process information based primarily on emotion and motivation, whereas evidence-based thinkers critically evaluate the veracity of information. A recent study published in PLOS One Journal found that motivation-based reasoning was associated with a preference for alternative medical therapies, endorsement of spirituality as a source of knowledge, and greater openness to experience. This kind of reasoning has also been associated with an alignment to alternative or holistic health, anti-authoritarian worldviews, conspiracy ideation, faith healing and the world of the supernatural. There is also some evidence that people engage in magical thinking as a way to understand themselves, and the world around them. People experiencing uncertainty about the world typically try and reduce this uncertainty by seeking structure, to try and predict what will happen next. The experience of uncertainty has been linked to an increased belief in conspiracies and paranormal concepts. In turn, high levels of stress and a low tolerance for uncertainty have all been related to a greater inclination towards magical thinking and interest in astrology has been positively correlated with the frequency of an individual’s experience of personal crisis. So perhaps magical thinking gives people a sense of predictability and control in an otherwise uncertain world. But hitching your wagon to an in finite body of unknowable, unprovable, and so ultimately, unhelpful information does not ease my mind. If you think a life without magical thinking sounds boring, think again. The natural world is startling, and the certainties of science can be more than enough to capture your imagination. Did you know there are human chimeras? These are people that have two di fferent types of DNA because of a fraternal twin that died, usually in utero, causing the absorption of some of their genetic material by the remaining twin. In one of these cases, a woman found her blood cells contained one set of genetic material, and her ovaries contained a completely di fferent set. She gave birth to her unborn twin sister’s babies. Why would you waste time believing in black cats, astrology or organised religion when things like this can happen because of science alone? If a little magical thinking helps you sleep at night, perhaps there is no harm. It is rare to meet someone that is totally devoid of any superstition or ritual, and making connections between phenomena is a fundamentally human trait. But as a scientist I believe there is a time and place for magical thinking – the time being when all rational theories have been exhausted; and the place being nowhere near science or medicine. Dr Jessica L. Paterson Senior Research Fellow