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What is magical thinking and do we grow out of it?

How is it the intelligent human brain can believe a presumably wealthy fat man flies to every household in the world in one night delivering presents? Flickr/Carlos, CC BY-SA

Have you ever wondered why children so easily accept that once every year, a terribly generous and presumably very wealthy gentleman travels by magic reindeer to all children across the world to deliver presents during the night?

Just prior to Christmas I thought I’d outline a surprisingly common quirk of human cognition – magical thinking.

As humans we appear to have an innate tendency to draw links between our observations of phenomena in our environment. For example, I may observe that when grey clouds gather, it is more likely to rain, and if I took steps to objectively test that observation, chances are I’d be on the money.

From an evolutionary point of view you can see how important making these links have been to our survival. Being able to figure out what precedes what, and develop some method of prediction, can allow us to develop some control over our environment.

This tendency to infer causation between seemingly related stimuli can lead to some hilarious red herrings such as the relationship between cheese consumption and strangulation by bedsheet, and some very common mistakes including the placebo effect (misattributing a change in one’s health to an external agent of some sort).

Kids are attracted to, and even excited by, the idea of magic (as seen in the phenomenal success of Harry Potter). Kids will happily accept impossible explanations for many things. Parents need to be careful in times of stress that kids don’t take on blame for events that have nothing to do with them – for example believing that their parents are divorcing because their grades were bad.

These perfectly normal examples of child cognition coincide with normal child brain development; their egocentricity combined with a limited ability to reason with abstract concepts are largely responsible for these errors.

In the clip below, I filmed my daughter (then aged about 13 years) making a classic magical thinking error – she reasoned Kevin Rudd must be making it rain because it started to rain a lot after he came in to power. I put her hypothesis to two 10-year old boys, and after initially accepting this as a perfectly logical relationship, they struggled to explain their reasoning.

Although much criticism has been directed towards Rudd’s prime ministership, I really don’t think we can pin the weather on him.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget first documented magical thinking in children and typically it should start to wane around the age of 10 years (give or take a couple of years either way). Children will start to question the feasibility of the mechanisms that lie behind the connections they make – can a man really travel round the entire world in just one night? How can a politician influence the weather?

Eventually we are supposed to grow up. And most of us like to believe that as adults, our opinions, understanding or attitudes are grounded in solid realistic principles. However, it may come as a huge shock that most adults (even extremely well educated ones) will hold on to their favourite magical thinking quirks, and/or quickly fall back on magical thinking – especially in times of high emotion/stress, or where clear links are difficult to elucidate.

Examples are almost too numerous to list, but be honest with yourself – do you occasionally read your horoscope, buy a lotto ticket in times of financial stress, cross your fingers when you really want a particular outcome, or use denial as a coping mechanism when reality is just too awful to face? Chances are that you’ve engaged in magical thinking.

Some forms of magical thinking are more culturally accepted than others, as comedian Arj Barker points out here in the hypocrisy behind mainstream religion’s criticism of Scientology:

They’re like, ‘hey, man, I just can’t believe that you would put your faith in a religion which is based on science fiction. That’s just about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna continue reading my bible.’ - ‘And then the talking snake said, 'here, eat the magical apple.“

And don’t be fooled into believing only mere average Joes fall victim to magical thinking. Think about controversial murder cases (Azaria Chamberlin, Jon Benet Ramsey) where frenzied desperation to find and blame a killer over-rode a careful and thoughtful analysis of the evidence.

Even some government policies, for example the Queensland government’s recent flat out denial of the mere possibility of rising sea levels due to climate change, would be hysterically funny if it weren’t so potentially dangerous.

Certain aspects of magical thinking stay with most of us well into adulthood, probably because at the end of the day, we all have a tendency to see the world the way we want it to be, rather than the way it actually is.

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