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What is Magical Thinking?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2016
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Magical thinking is a psychological term for an irrational belief in causality. Superstitions, rituals, and some popular psychology theories are based on the principal that performing a certain action will cause another action to occur, even if the two are not logically related. Even the old saw “step on a crack, break your mother's back,” is a form of magical thinking.

One theory suggests that magical thinking has developed out of an instinctual search and recognition of patterns. If a person notices that every time he eats cranberries, he breaks out in a rash, he has recognized a pattern that may cause him to change his behavior. Perceiving imaginary patterns, such as pregame rituals, is relatively unlikely to cause harm. Ignoring actual patterns of cause and effect, on the other hand, can be dangerous or even deadly. According to some experts, humans may be more susceptible to inventing causality patterns and engaging in magical thinking because it is a safer option.

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Magical thinking is a characteristic of children, but it is far from uncommon in adults as well. Much of the heart of symbolism and ritual is based in the idea that an act can bring about a specific result. During the tragedy of the September 11th bombings, for instance, many took the erection of an American flag at the site of the attacks to be a sign that the country would prevail and that all was not lost. While probably very few actually fully believed that the flag was the actual deciding factor in the success of failure of America, the hope generated by the raising of the symbol could be classified as a form of magical thinking.

Some pop psychology theories revolve around the idea of achievement through the power of thought. While documented research remains fairly scant, these theories suggest that strong, positive thinking is the key to achieving anything in life, from a diamond necklace to a singing career. While skeptics dismiss these theories as magical thinking that encourages people to border on delusion, some suggest that positive thinking can have a positive impact on some situations by inspiring a person to change his or her ways.

The far psychological end of magical thinking can be disastrous or even fatal. Schizophrenia is often related to magical thinking, as schizophrenics may believe they have the power to control things with their mind, or can create things just by thinking about them. People with narcissistic tendencies may be susceptible to extreme versions of magical thoughts that craft their perception of the world into a place where they are the ultimate and central beings. Yet most people engage in magical thoughts on a daily basis without any risk of harm, or even realization of what is happening. Any person who has ever shouted at a television to work, avoided walking under a ladder, or attributed a good or bad event to karma is asserting an irrational causality.

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