The Perils of Magical Thinking

You’re doing something, and something else happens that seems too fortuitous to possibly be coincidence, and so you say that one thing caused the other with no evidence other than one thing preceded the other.

            This, among other things, is what’s known as magical thinking. Magical thinking, simply put, is to ascribe meaning or causation, particularly of a spiritual nature, to events. The reason it’s magical thinking is because the assumption is generally that the event in question was a miraculous byproduct of something else. We’ve all done it from time to time. We narrowly find the solution to a problem, and instead of acknowledging the dumb luck or scientific explanation for something, we instead say that we’re tapped into the universe.

            This thinking may seem harmless, and for the most part it is. But, this kind of thinking also lends itself to a serious detachment from reality. Magical thinking seems to have gained some popularity in recent years with a resurgence of new age spirituality in popular culture. It’s so common to hear things like the aforementioned “connection to the universe” or that had we not tripped on that rock, we wouldn’t have found the solution. And while it may circumstantially be somewhat true that one event called your attention to another, it certainly isn’t the case that the object was placed in your path so that you could find it.

            Magical thinking is very romantic. Ascribing divine meaning to menial events makes the events themselves feel more significant. The mere act of you losing your car keys is boring in and of itself, but when you find your car keys in your grandfather’s army uniform, something happened to get them there – they didn’t make their own way there. Similarly, magical thinking is often employed as a preventative measure: “I have to do it this way or else it won’t work, I’ve always done it this way.” This is usually a symptom of anxiety, but is often overlooked as spirituality. 

            What I find especially interesting about magical thinking is that otherwise intelligent and rational people who would otherwise find others’ magical thinking to be a symptom of some larger disorder seem to easily fall into magical thinking of their own without seeing the contradiction. Magical thinking, while seemingly innocent, belies a greater problem: a reality-disconnect, or at least ignorance. Many people who engage in magical thinking tend to demand evidence in other areas of life but will eschew evidence altogether and find divine meaning in the mundane at the drop of a hat. 

            I’m not going to tell anyone to stop their magical thinking. For some it’s a comfort, albeit an lie. But I do think we need to avoid magical thinking as often as we can. It’s so important to stay routed in reality, to demand the evidence, to abandon baseless speculation. In a time where so many are fact-averse, magical thinking could slip right under the radar, seemingly dwarfed by the more outrageous conspiracy-minded people. But, it’s dangerous to ascribe bigger meaning to otherwise explainable things. The “universe” didn’t line anything up so that you could have the perfect path to your solution or destination, that’s just how things were as you encountered them. The world is chaos, not cleverly orchestrated by some engineer or overlord. Avoiding magical thinking is crucial to our maintaining a grip on the intellectual progress we’ve made.

Published by Christopher Goodlof

Writer, Visual Artist, Musician

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