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In anthropology, psychology and cognitive science magical thinking is causal reasoning that often includes such ideas as the law of contagion, correlation equaling causation, the power of symbols and the ability of the mind to affect the physical world.

Like science, magic is concerned with causal relations, but unlike science, it does not distinguish correlation from causation. For example, someone who has won a shirt as a prize in a bowling competition may then come to believe this shirt is lucky. Such a person might well then wear the shirt to subsequent bowling competitions and attribute success to the `lucky' shirt, despite sustaining some tournament losses in addition to victories.

Magical thinking can occur when one simply does not understand possible causes, as illustrated by Sir Arthur C. Clarke's suggestion that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (see Clarke's three laws), but can also occur in response to situations that are largely random or chaotic, such as a coin toss, as well as in situations that one has little or no control over, especially those one is emotionally invested in. (Indeed, this can be seen as a special case of failure to understand possible causes: specifically, a failure to understand the laws of probability that guarantee the occurrence of coincidences and seeming patterns.) See below for more specific examples.

James George Frazer and Bronisław Malinowski said that magic is more like science than religion, and that societies with magical beliefs often had separate religious beliefs and practices.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


According to Frazer,[1] magical thinking depends on two laws: the law of similarity (an effect resembles its cause), and the law of contagion (things which were once in physical contact maintain a connection even after physical contact has been broken). These two laws govern the operation of what Frazer called "sympathetic magic", the idea that the manipulation of effigies or similar symbols or tokens can cause changes to occur in the thing the symbol represented. Typical examples of sympathetic magic include the use of voodoo dolls, and the fetishization of cargo cults. Others have described these two laws as examples of "analogical reasoning" (rather than logical reasoning). Magical thinking is a common phase in child development. From the age of a toddler to early school age children will often link the outside world with their internal consciousness, e.g. "It is raining because I am sad".

Typically, people use magic to attempt to explain things that science has not acceptably explained, or to attempt to control things that science cannot. The classic example is of the collapsing roof, described in E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Magic, and Oracles Among the Azande, in which the Azande claimed that a roof fell on a particular person because of a magical spell cast (unwittingly) by another person.

The Azande knew perfectly well a scientific explanation for the collapsing room (that termites had eaten through the supporting posts), but pointed out that this scientific explanation could not explain why the roof happened to collapse at precisely the same moment that the particular man was resting beneath it. The magic explains why two independent chains of causation intersect. Thus, from the point of view of the practitioners, magic explains what scientists would call "coincidences" or "contingency". From the point of view of outside observers, magic is a way of making coincidences meaningful in social terms. Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity for experiences of this type.

Adherents of magical belief systems often do not see their beliefs as being magical. In Asia, many coincidences and contingencies are explained in terms of karma in which a person's actions in a past life affects current events. Likewise in the west, ideas of "motivation" and "positive thinking" in themselves achieving outcomes are not seen as magical by those who tout their benefits.

A common form of magical thinking is that one's own thoughts can influence events, either beneficially, by creating good luck, or for the worse, as in divine punishment for "bad thoughts". Freud reflected on these phenomena in his essay, "The Uncanny". These beliefs reflect an incorrect understanding of the boundaries of self; one can indeed will to move one's own arm, but not the ashtray on the table, at least not by any direct means (e.g. we can will our arm to move the ashtray, or there may be even less direct routes of influence). We can also make the opposite error: thinking that outside agencies can see into or influence our thoughts (paranoia).

Another form of magical thinking occurs when people believe that words can directly affect the world. This can mean avoiding talking about certain subjects ("speak of the devil and he'll appear"), using euphemisms instead of certain words, or believing that to know the "true name" of something gives one power over it, or that certain chants, prayers or mystical phrases will change things. More generally, it is magical thinking to take a symbol to be its referent.

Mental illness

Magical thinking is often intensified in mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), clinical depression or schizotypal personality disorder.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In each it can take a different form peculiar to the particular illness. In OCD, it is often used in ritual fashion to ameliorate the dread and risk of various dangerous possibilities, regardless of whether it has real effects on the object of fear. It contributes more to peace of mind, in that the person now feels they can engage in a risky activity more safely.

This is not unlike magical thinking in non-afflicted individuals; lucky garments and activities are common in the sports world. It begins to interfere with life when those activities deemed risky are routine and everyday, such as meeting others, using a public toilet, crossing a busy intersection, or eating. It is important to note, however, that not all people with OCD engage in a strict form of magical thinking, as many are fully conscious that the rationalizations with which they justify their obsessions or compulsions to themselves and others are not 'reasonable' in an ordinary sense of that word.

Psychometric evidence has been obtained showing a correlation between psychosis and magical thinking. It has been found that those who scored highest on magical thinking showed a predisposition to psychosis (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983). Schizophrenic patients scored higher on a magical thinking scale than non-schizophrenic psychiatric patients or normal subjects (George & Neufeld, 1987). Subjects believing in extraordinary phenomena scored higher on the Schizophrenia subscale of the MMPI than non-believers (Windholz & Diamant, 1974). Research has also shown that paranormal beliefs, including magical thinking, are significantly and positively correlated with people experiencing psychosis from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (e.g., Thalbourne and French, 1995).

Alternative medicine

Phillips Stevens writes "Many of today's complementary or alternative systems of healing involve magical beliefs, manifesting ways of thinking based in principles of cosmology and causality that are timeless and absolutely universal. So similar are some of these principles among all human populations that some cognitive scientists have suggested that they are innate to the human species, and this suggestion is being strengthened by current scientific research..." Some of the principles of magical beliefs described above are evident in currently popular belief systems. A common example is homeopathy; the fundamental principle of its founder, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), similia similibus curentur ("let likes cure likes"), in which it is supposed as an explicit expression of a magical principle, of the sort called sympathetic magic by Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough.[1]


Richard Feynman suggested, in his "Cargo Cult Science" speech, that scientists may fall prey to a form of magical thinking as well as laypeople. When experiments are poorly controlled and not repeated, or reporting bias dominates, scientists may "fool themselves" into believing insignificant results significant. If enough flawed work is done in a field — Feynman singles out psychology in particular as sloppy — then further experiments may devolve into a set of unfounded rituals.[2] In short, methods that are scientific may be used to generate results that merely seem scientific.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Frazer, James George (2000). The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion (Abridged ed.), New York:
  2. Feynman, Richard (1974). "Cargo Cult Science", Engineering and Science 37:7.
  • Barrett, Stephen. 1987 "Homeopathy: Is it medicine?" Skeptical Inquirer (12)1, Fall: 56-62.
  • Bonser, Wilfrid. 1963 The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study in History, Psychology, and Folklore London: Oxford University Press.
  • Beyerstein, Barry L. 1997 "Why bogus therapies seem to work" Skeptical Inquirer (21)5, September/October: 29-34.
  • Diaconis, P (1985) "Theories of data analysis: from magical thinking through classical statistics", in Hoaglin et al., (eds) Exploring Data Tables Trends and Shapes, Wiley
  • Dubisch, Jill. 1981. "You are what you eat: Religious aspects of the health food movement" in The American Dimension: Culture Myths and Social Realities, edited by Susan P. Montague and W. Arens. Second edition. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield. ISBN 0-88284-030-4
  • Eckblad, M. & Chapman, L. J. (1983). Magical ideation as an indicator of schizotypy. Journal of Counselling and Clinical Psychology, 51, 215-225.
  • Feynman, R. P. and Leighton, R. (1985) Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Norton paperback ed. New York: W. M. Norton and Co. ISBN 0-393-31604-1
  • Frazer, James George. 1911-1915 The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion Third edition. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-684-82630-5
  • Gardner, Martin. 1989 "Water with memory? The dilution affair" Skeptical Inquirer 12(2):132-141.
  • George, L., & Neufeld, R. W. J. (1987). Magical ideation and schizophrenia. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 778-779.
  • Hand, Wayland D. 1980. "Folk Magical Medicine and Symbolism in the West." In Magical Medicine Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 305-319.
  • Krippner, Stanley, and Michael Winkler. 1996. The "Need to Believe." In Encyclopedia of the Paranormal Gordon Stein, ed. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, pp. 441-454. ISBN 1-57392-021-5
  • Linde, Klaus, Nicola Clausius, Gilbert Ramirez, Dieter Meichart, Florian Eitel, Larry V. Hedges, and Wayne B. Jonas. 1997. "Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects?" The Lancet 350:834-843; erratum 351, Jan. 17, 1998, p. 220.
  • McTaggart, Lynne, "The Field" Harper Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 1, 2003)
  • Shermer, Michael. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things New York: W.H. Freeman. ISBN 0-8050-7089-3
  • Stevens, Phillip, Jr. "Magical Thinking in Complementary and Alternative Medicine". Skeptical Inquirer. Nov/Dec 2001.
  • Thalbourne, M. A. & French, C. C. (1995). Paranormal belief, manic-depressiveness, and magical ideation: a replication. Personality and Individual Differences, 18, 291-292.
  • Thomas, Sherilyn Nicole. 1999. Magical Ideation in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Psychology, SUNY at Buffalo.
  • Windholz, G. & Diamant, L. (1974). Some personality traits of believers in extraordinary phenomena. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 3, 125-126.
  • Zusne, L., and W.H. Jones, editors, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking, Second edition, Erlbaum, Lawrence Associates, Incorporated, 1989, Hillsdale, New Jersey, trade paperback 328 pages, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking, ISBN 0-8058-0508-7

Further reading

  • Serban, George. The Tyranny of Magical Thinking. E. P. Dutton Inc., New York 1982. ISBN 0-525-24140-X This work discusses how and why the magical thinking of childhood can carry into adulthood, causing various maladaptions and psychopathologies.
  • Dukes, Ramsey. "SSOTBME revised, an essay on magic". TMTS, London 2002. ISBN 978-0904311082. Argues for the survival and psychological benefits of magical thinking, and that it is often better seen as post-scientific rather than pre-scientific – as in complex software where bugs are increasingly addressed via work-arounds rather than analysis.

External links

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