Averting anxiety with cosmic connectivity: magical thinking
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How to recognise this tactic
Magical thinking is present when anyone argues that everything is connected: thoughts, symbols and rituals can have distant physical and mental effects; inanimate objects can have intentions and mystical influences. Often, the connectivity is supposedly mediated by some mysterious energy, force or vibration and there is much talk of holism, resonance, balance, essences and higher states.
Some people think of magical thought as an open invitation to unrestrained supernatural indulgence while others think of magical thought as a subjectively enjoyable cognitive illusion with numerous undesirable side effects.
Kevin J. McCaffree, American sociologist, 2012
Why do people use this tactic?
We all employ magical thinking to some extent, and probably can’t escape it entirely. It seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to feel in control when we are confronted by threats that we don’t know how to deal with. By calling on supposedly magical processes, we feel as though we are doing something to counter the threat. This can remove the stress and anxiety that would otherwise cause us to break down in those circumstances, allowing us to function more effectively. The tactics people use range from crossing fingers for luck, to ESP, to travelling to another continent to be in the presence of a magically healing relic.
What’s wrong with this tactic
Magical thinking is the foundation of superstitions. In the days when humans had very little understanding of the real world, it may have been an advantage to engage superstitions. They allowed people to remain unfazed by anxiety when confronted by incomprehensible dangers. But there is no evidence that any superstitions have any other effect at all. With our present state of knowledge, most threats can be dealt with rationally because we understand their causes and know how to mitigate them. Using superstitions or magic instead of tested techniques that would have worked can be disastrous.
And purveyors of bogus science can use our propensity for magical thinking to deceive us. They may try to convince us that they can provide tools that give us access to magic – crystals, potions, rituals, power bands, icons, treatments, belief systems and so on. These tools are never supported by evidence from real-world tests. Sometimes they are harmless. But when they delay or replace rational, tested solutions, they can cause untold harm.
What to do when confronted by this tactic
It’s important to recognize that we are all tempted to think magically and to guard against it. Many people are comfortable with magical thinking existing in their mental processes simultaneously with rational thinking. Learn to recognize this and, when you are dealing with a problem that has perfectly good rational solutions, banish the magical thinking. Realize that some people may try to encourage your magical thinking to re-emerge for their own benefit.
Variations and related tactics
Promoters of magical thinking recruit as many pseudoscientific techniques, cognitive biases and logical fallacies as they can. Among the favourites are reliance on anecdotal evidence, appeals to authority and ancient wisdom, false dichotomy, wishful thinking, technobabble, rooster syndrome, apophenia, esoteric energy and misapplication of scientific models.
- Here’s a video that shows all the hallmarks of magical thinking:
- Cancer remains one of the threats that cannot always be averted by science, so it’s no surprise that the purveyors of magical thinking abound in that field. Here’s a review of some of the ‘remedies’, and a post from Science-Based Medicine describing what can happen when proper medical treatment for breast cancer is rejected.
- Here’s an extract with copious magical thinking from a website promoting crystal healing:
Cancer comes in many shapes and forms and it is becoming all too common. What I have noticed is, cancer is really about us holding back our energy, our creative power, the ‘real’ us that wants to do more but we feel we can’t for many different reasons. We hold back for so long we shut down our light, slowly over time.
Energetically, it is stagnant or blocked energy. It often appears black to me, where there should be light or a colour. Putting light back in and opening the flow into the area is what needs doing. Doing the thing you really want to do, often comes to the forefront as the energy starts to flow into the area. DO IT!! You’ll feel free and often just doing ‘the thing’ makes the world of difference – literally.
Healing stones I recommend are those that increase the energy flow, allowing more light to pass to the area. Stones that regenerate the cells, purify the mind / body, restructure DNA (so the dis-eased cells can go back to normal) create balance and stability by grounding the healing energy into the person’s aura.
Needless to say, this is complete nonsense. Crystals have no supernatural properties, and there is no evidence showing they can cure cancer by any means. Encouraging their use as a cancer treatment is irresponsible.
- So called psychics and channelers rely heavily on their clients’ tendency towards magical thinking. In this video, Miklos Jako analyses a session with “channeler” James Van Praagh. Jako demonstrates how Van Praagh uses cold and hot reading techniques to delude the client into believing he has paranormal powers.
- Update 2013/08/11: Here’s Martin Pribble’s story telling how he desperately wanted to believe in all sorts of magic, but eventually found that the real world is much more exciting.
What is magical thinking and do we grow out of it? at The Conversation.
Why do so many people believe in psychic powers? at BPS Research Digest.
Kevin J. McCaffree’s quote is from Is Magical Thinking Good? at eSKEPTIC.
The Wicca jewellery photo is by Midnightblueowl from Wikipedia.
Many of the ideas in this post stem from a paper by D. Thomas Markle: The magic that binds us: magical thinking and inclusive fitness.
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