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Space for Rent: Magical Thinking

Tweet of the Day: Snow Child


Have you ever come across a person that makes a ludicrous, counterfactual or wildly inaccurate statement and does it with absolute assurance that it is the unquestionable truth? Then you might be dealing with this:

From the Wikipedia page:

Magical thinking is causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion, and superstition, the correlation posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice, or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities

Here is an example of how it works. I have a ruby, and rubies are red. Fire is red. Therefore it I insert the ruby into an amulet it will give it the power to control fire. This is what is meant by casual correlations, based on superficial similarities or associations. This type of thinking is common (but in no way limited to) young children who lacking in depth knowledge fall back on simple associations to understand the world around them.

It is easy to think that magical thinking is restricted to children or pre-industrial societies (as the wikepedia article seems to suggest) but when you add a series of biases such as confirmation bias and belief bias you end up with a powerful mixture that preserves this type of thinking both to adulthood and the information age. Nor is it limited to religion.

In fact any philosophy downgraded into an ideology can lead to this kind of phenomenon no matter how solid the logic behind the original philosophy may be. Take the Cultural Revolution in China. Millions of youths engaged in cult like behavior around the figure of Mao and his little red book even though Marx despised religion in all its forms. And even those who are supposed to be well informed and educated engage in this kind thinking.

See your average TV pundit.


We all do it, in part because it comes from the same area in our minds as prejudice. Here is a perfect example of what I am talking about. It is very easy to make casual correlations based on superficial observations just as it is easy to accept conclusions that fit our preconceptions and reject those that challenge them regardless of the facts at hand. And literature, especially speculative fiction, exploits magical thinking in world building. Through the process of suspension of disbelief we accept the precepts of a given universe as accurate (within the context of said construct) and move on. Without it we could not enjoy the story.

So the next time you encounter an outlandish or inaccurate statement/argument know that while the argument may be illogical, there is a meta-logic to the thinking that lead to it.


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