The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

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How many times a day do you either say a prayer, cross your fingers, knock on wood, or worry that your good luck will turn on you?

When two bad things happen to you, do you cringe in fear of the third unfortunate event you know is about to happen? Even those of us who “know better” are readily prone to this type of superstitious thinking.

Defying logic, we also readily believe in our own psychic powers. No doubt, you’ve experienced thinking of a friend when all of a sudden your phone rings to announce a new text from that very person. Proof positive that your thoughts caused your friend to contact you at that very moment. Right?

[two_fourth class=”” last=”no” ][img src=”×400.jpg” alt=”Rules Of Magic – Seth Grabel Magic” width=”300″ height=”400″ ][/two_fourth] [two_fourth class=”” last=”yes” ]Before you rush to conclude that your thought processes couldn’t possibly demonstrate even one of these laws, see how long it takes you to recognize some of your own mental foibles in these 7 laws of magical thinking.

1. Objects carry essences. Consider what your memorabilia collection is like these days? According to this first rule, we attribute special properties to items that belong to or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, infamous, or has a particular quality we admire. Perhaps you’ve got a basketball signed by your favorite player or a pen that a rock star used to autograph your concert ticket. The greatness that’s rubbed off onto this memento gives you a sense of connection with your hero and makes you that much more special. [/two_fourth]

2. Symbols have power. Humans have a remarkable tendency to impute meaning not only to objects but to abstract entities as well. We imbue these symbols with the ability to affect actual events in our lives. According to the principle known as the “law of similarity,” we equate a symbol with the thing it stands for. In one experiment testing this idea, people refused to throw a dart at a picture of their own mother’s face but were able to take dead aim at a photo of Hitler. They confused their mother’s image with their mothers. The law of similarity is also expressed as “like produces like.” If you want to roll a high number on a die, you should shake it harder.

3. Actions have distant consequences. In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our seemingly unpredictable lives, we build up our own personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts. Many authors cites several compelling examples from the lore of fishermen (whose jobs are the deadliest in the U.S). The high stakes lead them to develop all sorts of complicated superstitious rituals. They don’t allow anyone to talk about horses, carry suitcases on board, or leave town on a Friday, to name just a few examples. They feel certain that violating any of these rules will cause severe injury if not loss of life. These extreme examples are just instances of the more general tendency that we all have to form “illusory correlations,” in which we assume that when two events co-occur, they are somehow logically connected.

[two_fourth class=”” last=”no” ]4. The mind knows no bounds. Still convinced you’re a rational human being?

Let’s put this next belief to the test. As I mentioned earlier, we are often impressed by the apparent coincidence that occurs when a person we’re thinking about suddenly contacts us.

For just that moment, we believe the event “proves” that we’re psychic. The more often this happens, the more likely we are to be convinced of our mind’s special powers.

One reason we fall for this mental trap is the illusory correlation, but a second is that we’re actually very poor statisticians.

We count the hits but not the misses.

[/two_fourth] [two_fourth class=”” last=”yes” ][img src=”” alt=”Seth-Grabel-Magic_Illusionist-Extraordinaire” width=”400″ height=”600″ ][/two_fourth]


5. The soul lives on. On a more serious note, many folks take on the belief in the afterlife from as much a philosophical as an empirical perspective. Even if you’re not into Cartesian dualism (the idea that the mind and body are two separate entities), you might find interesting the notion that even by the age of 3, children realize that an imagined cookie can’t be eaten. They also know that you can only think of, not see, a flying pig or a talking horse. Why, then, do adults hold on so stubbornly to the belief that the mind can continue even after its seat (the brain) is no longer alive? The answer, in part, comes from the terror that we feel about death, captured in the groundbreaking book, The Denial of Death. It’s our desire to avoid thinking about our own mortality that leads us, according to the author, to invent and hold onto a belief in the afterlife.

6. The world is alive. Adults are supposed to grow out of the stage that Piaget called “preoperational” thinking- which is basically the logic of the child between the ages of about 4 and 7. However, as published reports demonstrate, we share the young child’s belief in animism, which is one key feature of preoperational thought. In other words, we attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones. This is because we over-apply what’s known as the theory of mind, which is the process we use to understand and predict what other people are going to do. We read into the faces of our pets all sorts of human emotions such as humor, disappointment, and guilt.

7. Everything happens for a reason. The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us. It’s the thoughts that go through your head when you, for example, miss a plan that would have gotten you to a job interview on time but because you missed it, you didn’t get the job, but you did meet a person on the plan who you ended up going out with, who now has become your lifelong partner, and you then moved to a new home, and then had two children who never would existed if you hadn’t missed that plan. OK, that was a really long sentence, and maybe this hasn’t exactly happened to you, but I’m willing to bet that at some point in your life, you’ve gone through a line of reasoning that bears some similarity to this chain of events. Perhaps your home was spared (or not) during a hurricane, tornado, fire, or other disaster. Why were you spared- or not- and why did other people have the opposite happen to them?

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