Magical thinking: causes, functions and examples

Magical thinking has accompanied humanity since the dawn of time. We have a natural tendency to establish cause and effect relationships without logically checking them; this predisposition is very marked in childhood and it is maintained if the context in which we find ourselves favors it, as has happened in many cultures.

In this article we will define magical thinking and explain what are its causes and functions, Based on existing literature. Finally, we will present some significant examples and contexts in which this type of reasoning appears regularly.

    What is magical thinking?

    The concept of “magical thinking” is used in psychology and anthropology to describe illogical attributions of causation that are made without empirical evidence, Especially when the person believes that his thoughts can have consequences in the outside world, either by his own action or through supernatural forces.

    Magical thinking is present in the vast majority of cultures around the world. It is a natural process, probably with a biological basis similar to that of classical conditioning, by which we are based on temporal or spatial similarity or contiguity between elements, for example, to establish an unbreakable causal relationship between them.

    So, a girl who believes that if the man with the braid behaves badly, she falls into this logical error. The same goes for tribes who perform ritual dances to invoke rain or with people who think their wishes will be granted if they light a candle and confide in a particular saint.

    The belief that the mind has power over matterAs if it were a separate entity rather than a consequence of it, can be the basis of many cases of magical thinking. However, this is a very broad concept, so it has been used to refer to a wide variety of processes.

      Causes and functions

      Magical thinking has been mainly attributed to two facts: the contiguity between events (eg “My father died because I wished him death the day before”) and associative thinking, which involves establishing relationships based on similarities. . For example, the Mapuche believed that they would gain the strength of their enemies if they ate their hearts.

      Authors like Claude Lévi-Strauss or Thomas Markle have declared that magical thinking it has adaptive functions under certain circumstances. However, when attributing causes, this type of reasoning tends to fail much more often than that which is based on empirical evidence.

      One of the main functions of magical thinking is to reduce anxiety. When people find themselves in a stressful situation that they cannot resolve, it is easier for them to associate anxiety reduction with arbitrary elements in order to gain a sense of control. For example, in agoraphobia, the use of “amulets” is common.

      Even in today’s world, where we believe logic prevails, magical thinking continues to have a significant presence and it is even sometimes useful. A good example is the placebo effect, where the very belief that a bogus remedy will be useful in curing a disease results in improvement in symptoms.

      Examples of magical thinking

      Samples of magical thinking can be found in a large number of everyday situations, although in some cases this type of reasoning can be a sign of pathology, especially when the beliefs arise in adulthood and are not shared by the ‘environment.

      1. The self-centeredness of children

      Between 2 and 7 years old, at the preoperative stage described by PiagetChildren believe that they can change parts of the world with the mind, either intentionally or unintentionally. At this age, thinking is characterized by difficulty understanding abstract concepts and egocentricity, or the inability to adopt the perspective of others.

      Such ideas arise more frequently when the death of a loved one occurs; in these cases, children tend to believe that they have been responsible in one way or another. However, arbitrary causal attributions and illogical thinking in general, fostered by a lack of understanding of the world, are very typical of childhood.

      Magical thinking is very common among children because it is intrinsic to human nature. As cognitive development progresses the frequency of these ideas fades, At least in the case where the social context favors rational thinking; if not, magical beliefs can be passed down from generation to generation.

        2. Superstition and supernatural thought

        Superstitions are beliefs without a logical basis or scientific proof. It is a type of magical thinking, although it is difficult to define what exactly constitutes superstition; for example, religions don’t tend to be seen as superstitions although the only criterion that sets them apart is that they are shared by many people.

        As with magical thinking in general, superstitions are more common when people are in stressful situations. Thus, it is typical for those who do not firmly believe in the existence of the gods but do not exclude it at all to try to communicate with them when they are in despair.

        Some superstitions and supernatural ideas are transmitted through culture. This has happened to countless myths throughout history, and it’s also common for kids to be tricked into believing that Santa Claus, the Magi, or the Little Mouse Perez are there. Constructions such as fate and karma they are also good examples of magical thinking.

          3. Obsessive-compulsive disorder

          Sometimes the characteristic rituals of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be classified as magical thinking. This is more common in cases where the person is unaware that they have a disorder or exaggerates the realism of their beliefs.

          In particular, people with OCD often believe, or at least believe they fear that a misfortune can happen disproportionately serious if they do not perform the ritual; for example, a person suffering from this disorder might come to think that if a burning cigarette butt fell on the carpet, their entire floor would burn within seconds.

          4. Delirium and psychosis

          Magical thinking often appears in delusions, whether or not they occur in the context of a schizophrenia spectrum disorder. While in delusional disorder irrational beliefs tend to have a relatively believable structure, in the case of schizotypal disorder and particularly paranoid schizophrenia the beliefs are more bizarre.

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