Young man with pencil in mouth thinking

Why do we believe in ‘magical thinking’?

Are you superstitious? If you’ve said “yes” then you are one of the approximately 25 per cent of people who answer that way when surveyed. If you said “no” then think a bit further. Do you ever say, “knock on wood” after you say something to prevent a bad outcome? Do you ever think to yourself something along the lines of, “My favourite barista is on this morning, that means it is going to be a good day”. Maybe you don’t like to walk on the cracks in the footpath, or always put your right shoe on first? If you’ve done anything like this then you have engaged in magical thinking and superstition of a sort and according to a new paper published in Psychological Review there is a reason why superstitions are hard to shake.

Choosing not to correct an irrational thought is a process that she describes as "acquiescence".

Technically superstition is an example of “magical thinking”which is defined as believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation. The problem with that definition though is that it means that believing anything that hasn’t been scientifically proven is magical thinking. So a more useful definition might be that superstition is believing in things to a greater degree than the evidence justifies. This kind of thinking is certainly engaged in by many people, some of them intelligent, educated and emotionally stable. So in a new review a researcher has sought answer why you might cling to magical thoughts even when you rationally know that they don’t make sense.

The researcher suggests that detecting an irrational thought and correcting it are two distinct processes. Choosing not to correct an irrational thought is a process that she describes as “acquiescence”. She contends that people can override detecting a flaw in their superstition when the motivation is there and they will rationalise their magical “intuitive” thinking by dismissing the error in their superstition as arising from a special situation. This is how even when a person can see that a superstition does not make rational sense they are still able to acquiesce to their magical thinking.

Exploring the idea of “acquiescence” may help understand how people behave irrationally in many areas of life. Of course, that’s if we want to explore it further; do we really want to take all the magic out of life?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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