The psychology of magical thoughts

Psychology Today has a great article that covers the length and breadth of magical thinking – the tendency to see patterns and causality where none exists.

Magical thinking is described in a number of ways. Superstition is the most common, where we assume rituals will somehow affect the future despite having no causal connection to what we want to change.

Apophenia or pareidolia describe the effect where we see meaningful information where none was intended. The Fortean Times has a wonderful collection of photographs that depict ‘faces’ or other forms in clouds, trees, rock formations or even food.

Superstition and apophenia are an interesting contrast, because superstition can be more easily rejected than apophenia. Our perceptual systems are just set up to detect patterns, and so the perception of ‘faces’ is unavoidable.

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

The article looks at seven types of magical thinking, and discusses some of the key psychology experiments that have shown us how magical thinking is influenced.

One of my favourites is an experiment by psychologist Emily Pronin who found that people would readily attribute another person’s headaches to sticking pins in a ‘voodoo doll’.

Interestingly, the effect was much stronger when the other person (actually a stooge) was deliberately annoying. The irritating actor increased the likelihood of participants’ wishing them harm, and so increased the perceived connection between their ‘voodoo doll’ pin-sticking and the actor’s feigned headache.

Link to Psychology Today article on magical thinking.

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