Saturday, May 16, 2009

Magical Thinking - It's Magic

Last week, I posted a story on Confirmation Bias. Next up on my list is Magical Thinking. This is another popular logical flaw or fallacy in our thinking. I see examples of it almost every day. Sometimes it's fun to think magically: "I know if I work my birth date into my lottery numbers, I'll have a better chance to win." However, magical thinking in the extreme can be very debilitating and even deadly: "I won't go to work because the Moon is in the sign of cancer and I stepped on a sidewalk crack yesterday as a black cat crossed my path." or "If I just pray hard enough, my god will cure my daughter of diabetes."

From The Skeptic's Dictionary:

According to anthropologist Dr. Phillips Stevens Jr., magical thinking involves several elements, including a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend both physical and spiritual connections. Magical thinking invests special powers and forces in many things that are seen as symbols.

According to 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.

I found a very interesting article in Psychology Today: Magical Thinking. Here is a snippet:

Lindeman Marjaana, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki, defines magical thinking as treating the world as if it has mental properties (animism) or expecting the mind to exhibit the properties of the physical world. She found that people who literally endorse phrases such as, "Old furniture knows things about the past," or, "An evil thought is contaminated," also believe in things like feng shui (the idea that the arrangement of furniture can channel life energy) and astrology. They are also more likely to be religious and to believe in paranormal agents.

Essentially magical thinking is seeing causality in coincidence. "I shot a par on the 18th hole while wearing my purple shirt, therefore my shirt is lucky." Or "Grandma's illness got better because we all prayed about it, therefore the prayer worked."

This next part is interesting because I hadn't thought of magical thinking this way:

Magical thinking can be plotted on a spectrum, with skeptics at one end and schizophrenics at the other. People who endorse magical ideation, ranging from the innocuous (occasional fear of stepping on sidewalk cracks) to the outlandish (TV broadcasters know when you're watching), are more likely to have psychosis or develop it later in their lives. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder also exhibit elevated levels of paranoia, perceptual disturbances, and magical thinking, particularly "thought-action fusion," the belief that your negative thoughts can cause harm. These people are compelled to carry out repetitive tasks to counteract their intrusive thoughts about unlocked doors or loved ones getting cancer. But more magical thinking does not necessarily mean more emotional problems—what counts is whether such thinking interferes with everyday functioning.

You wouldn't want to be at the skeptic end of the spectrum anyway. "To be totally 'unmagical' is very unhealthy," says Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich. He has data, for example, strongly linking lack of magical ideation to anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. "Students who are 'not magical' don't typically enjoy going to parties and so on," he says. He's also found that there's a key chemical involved in magical thinking. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that the brain uses to tag experiences as meaningful, floods the brains of schizophrenics, who see significance in everything, but merely trickles in many depressives, who struggle to find value in everyday life. In one experiment, paranormal believers (who are high in dopamine) were more prone than nonbelievers to spot nonexistent faces when looking at jumbled images and also were less likely to miss the faces when they really were there. Everyone spotted more faces when given dopamine-boosting drugs. Brugger argues that the ability to see patterns and make loose associations enhances creativity and also serves a practical function: "If you're on the grassland, it's always better to assume that a tiger is there." -from Psychology Today

I like to think (perhaps magically) that I lie somewhere towards the skeptic end of this spectrum without being to "unmagical." I think I'll need someone to measure my dopamine before I can be certain...anyone want to help me with that?

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