Magical Thinking

What Is Magical Thinking?

According to the social psychologist, James Alcock, magical thinking is the interpreting of two closely occurring events, as though one caused the other, without any concern for the causal link. For example, if you believe that crossing your fingers brought you good fortune, you have associated the act of finger crossing with the subsequent welcome event, and imputed a causal link between the two.

In this sense, magical thinking is the source of many superstitions. Alcock notes that because of our neurobiological make up, we are prone to magical thinking, and that therefore, critical thinking is often at a disadvantage. Think of the post hoc fallacy, and the gambler’s fallacy. Think of trying to make sense of or give meaning to coincidences.

There are other definitions of magical thinking in the literature. Keinan (1994, p. 48) defines magical thinking as “any explanation of a behavior or experience that contradicts the laws of nature … usually refers to powers, principles, or entities that lack empirical evidence or scientific foundation.”

Zusne and Jones (1989, p. 13) define it as “a belief that (a) transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place solely because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, or (b) that one’s thoughts, words, or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information.”

All of these have in common that magical thinking involves reasoning without knowledge of, or on the basis of some sort of misconception about, causality, or about natural laws more generally.