The Trap of Magical Thinking

The Trap of Magical Thinking

Although I am a professional designer, my background is in the scientific field of Cognitive Psychology, and I don’t think I’ve ever fully left those roots behind me. So it is an interesting challenge to contrast the thinking frameworks I learned in science with the very different way of looking at the world known as “magical thinking”, which has very different standards of evidence. 

Through a scientific lens, everything is open to challenge, including the scientific method itself. That is how our methods continue to improve. Our world is built on thousands of years of layered theories. Theories that both help us explain the world and help us think scientitically about new phenomena. 

With each decade, we (excitingly) find evidence to disprove parts or entire previous held theories and build new ones, sometimes out of the very bones of older theories. It is exciting, it is inspiring and it is crucial to our way of life. It underpins all of our technology. It helps us to understand our universe better, to make better decisions and to be a part of the great journey of life. 

A scientific mindset engages with the world in three crucial stages: observe patterns, create theories to explain the patterns, extract and test hypothesis that support to fail to support the theory. Theories that gather evidence are built up and supported. Theories that fail to gather evidence are set aside. 

It can be both challenging and humbling. Scientists must have a willingness to let go of part or all of a theory when it is unsupported. They must also be willing to explore and expose both their biases and limitations on their knowledge. Scientists will sometimes suffer from a form of imposter’s syndrome. When deeply entrenched in a domain area, they realise just how little they know are can often be unwilling to state anything dogmatically. 

In contrast to scientific method, magical thinking starts with a theory and then seeks evidence to validate the theory. Explanations are often (but not always) based on mystical, otherworldly or all-powerful actors; things like deities, fairies and conspiratorial secret groups. 

Magical thinking relies heavily on confirmation bias; the selective attention to evidence that supports a theory. There is an unwillingness to change theories based on evidence. Often the most compelling evidence is that which can be personally seen or obtained. 

People who tend towards magical thinking also show elements of the Denning-Kruger effect; an overconfidence in their own grasp of a domain. In the strongest cases of magical thinking, people can assume that their behaviours, rituals or actions actually affect the world through otherworldly causal relationships. 

Magical thinking mindsets show up in all sorts of modern conspiracy theories, including the belief in a flat earth, anti-vaccination (anti-vaxxer) and faked moon landings. 

Unfortunately, science and magical thinking often fail to even be debating in the same language. A dialogue might go something like this… 

“I’m not sure there is enough evidence to support a theory that the Loch Ness monster exists. What is your theory as to what the creature is and how it hides so effectively in a confined lake?”

“Well that’s just what I believe and everyone is entitled to their belief.” 

I’d like to think I have enough cognitive empathy to see a little deeper into to the emotion behind all of this. After all, we live in strange times. The world is smaller in some ways; I can fly anywhere in the world in about twelve to fourteen hours. Yet, modern technology and media has in others ways made us more lonely and isolated from each other. We look at our phones, not other people. We hurl slogans and links to online articles at one another, rather than have indepth, curious and empathetic conversations.  

We are challenged with some of the biggest and most complex issues we’ve ever faced as a species. Dealing with these issues amidst growing isolation and lonliness seems a ripe place for people to become desperate to be part of something special. There are powerful emotions formed in being part of a group of believers to crystalise around a fringe theory. The small defenders against the larger status quo. 

It probably doesn’t help that many mainstream scientific theories have had the side effect of relocating humankind’s place in the universe. If the Earth is the centre of the Universe, then we are special. But if we are just one small speck of cosmic dust, floating in a near infinity, then we feel insignificant. 

Here is the issue though: Beliefs we hold affect our decisions, and our decisions we make can affect the world. If we fail to act on issues like climate change, or we put human needs always above that of the environment as a whole, or we don’t get crucial vaccinations, then we aren’t just excercising our rights to have different beliefs. We are impacting the wellbeing of those around us.


Magic Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

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