Have you ever avoided stepping on a crack, just in case you might break your mother’s back?
How do you simultaneously cut taxes, increase spending, and balance the budget? All it takes is a little magical thinking – our topic for this week. Magical thinking happens when you have, say, firmly held beliefs base on scanty or even non-existent evidence or when you make plans in which ends and means are radically out of synch. Think of the belief that doing a certain dance can cause it to rain or that wearing a baseball cap inside out can lead to a rally. But, of course, \magical thinking doesn’t show up just in outmoded superstitions or harmless rituals at sporting events. It is actually all around us. And it’s all around us despite the fact that we live in the most scientific age in all of human history. Science is the very antithesis of magical thinking. Indeed, you might think it’s the antidote to magical thinking. But for reasons not entirely obvious science has not stopped the spread of magical thinking. Magical thinking is everywhere. It infects politics, religion, the media, even the economy. And “infects” is, I think, the right word. We suffer from an epidemic of magical thinking. Just as opiate drugs ravage far too many families, so magical thinking ravages far too many minds. Magical thinking makes us ripe fro the picking by scam artists and demagogues. Witness our fascination with Trump’s wall, or countless fad diets, or the latest bargain basement gizmo that will do some supposedly amazing thing for three low cost payments of 19.99!
The question immediately arises of how there could possibly be such an epidemic of magical thinking in such a scientific age as ours. The easy answer is just that science is hard, while magical thinking is easy. And one should never be optimistic about the prospect of human beings pursuing the hard path rather than the easy path. Now you might think that pursuing the easy path is often a recipe for disaster. And no doubt it often is. But I suspect that our propensity for magical thinking may not be a matter of choice. It may be a matter of design. Our minds may have been designed by natural selection to engage in magical thinking.
Think about life back on the savannah, where our species first evolved. Potential predators lurking everywhere, food not exactly plentiful. Our forbears didn’t have time for science. You hear something rustling in the grass … quick … decide … rabbit or lion? Now you might think that the main thing is to get it right. If there’s a rabbit, you should believe that there is a rabbit. If there is a lion, you should believe that there is a lion. After all, if it’s a lion and you conclude that it’s a rabbit, you could be in a world of hurt.
But that is much too simple. Believing the truth is generally a good thing – no doubt about it. But it can take time and resources to figure out the truth. And if it’s a matter of making sure you avoid being eaten, you may not have the time or the resources. Moreover, some ways of being wrong are clearly much worse for you than others. If it’s a rabbit and you jump to the conclusion that it’s a lion, no big deal. Sure, you don’t get to eat the rabbit, but at least you’re alive. In other words, while it may be bad to believe falsely that it’s a lion when it’s really a rabbit – that’ll cost you a meal – it’s much worse to believe it’s a rabbit, when it’s really a lion. That’ll cost your life. Bottom line, it’s better to assume it’s lion unless and until proven otherwise. Truth be damned! Of course, you don’t want to starve to death. But hopefully sometimes you see the rabbit up close and personal. And then it’s alright to believe that it’s a rabbit. Sure, you’ll have lots of false beliefs. Sure, you’ll miss a few meals. But you’re very unlikely to become a meal yourself.
Now it seems to me that this kind of cognitive tendency is the very essence of magical thinking. Magical thinking isn’t about finding the truth. It’s about forming useful and firmly held beliefs -- even on the basis of scanty evidence. Science is about the opposite. It makes you slow down. It says consider all reasonable hypotheses and ferret out as much evidence as possible, before finally reaching a conclusion. The slow and laborious process of science wouldn’t have been much use to our forbears on the savannah. They faced the pressure of the moment. They needed quick and dirty ways of deciding what to believe and what to do.
And thus, I submit, was our propensity for magical thinking first born!
Of course, while magical thinking may have been useful on the Savannah, we’re not on the Savannah anymore. Away from the Savanah magical thinking can lead to disaster -- especially in environments filled with shysters, hucksters and demagogues, out to exploit our cognitive foibles for their own gain. Unfortunately, magical thinking is with us still. It has definitely not been driven out by science. Look no further than the media and our political debates. Indeed, our country’s leaders have themselves engaged in a quite a lot of magical thinking of their own over the years.
But of course, you, kind listener, are perhaps not taken in by the lure of magical thinking. So why not tune in this week and help us in our quest to combat its lure.