Magical Thinking

Sunday, June 30, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is it

Have you ever avoided stepping on a crack, just in case you might break your mother’s back? Every day, people make decisions and act based on completely unfounded ideas and superstitions – even when they acknowledge that there is no evidence to support their reasoning. Why do we so often engage in this kind of magical thinking? What could cause otherwise rational people to believe outlandish things? Are we as rationally motivated as we might think? John and Ken share some magic with Michael Shermer, author of Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye.

Listening Notes

John explains that magical thinking isn’t only about outdated superstitions – it’s everywhere! Magical thinking involves firmly held beliefs based on scant or non-existent evidence. Ken hesitates to accept John’s claim – after all, we live in the age of science, which is pretty much the antithesis of magical thinking! John says that hasn’t stopped the spread of the – as he puts it - epidemic– magical thinking is present in politics, religion, the media, and the economy. And it’s not necessarily a good thing – magical thinking makes us vulnerable to scams. Ken isn’t buying that this is really an epidemic, but John insists that the ease of magical thinking really makes it widely accessible as compared to, say, science. In a way, John suggests, evolution programmed our minds around the phenomenon. Ultimately, magical thinking is about forming useful beliefs that will keep us safe, not about finding the truth.

John and Ken welcome guest Michael Shermer, Founding Editor of Skeptic Magazine. John asks Michael what got him interested in magical thinking. Michael explains it all began with the TV show In Search Of… starring Leonard Nimoy, which aired when he was in graduate school. At the time, there was a lab at UCLA that was testing the paranormal, and it seemed plausible that some of these phenomena were real. Every week he explored a different topic, each of which seemed potentially reasonable. Now, Michael explains, the concept of magical thinking comes down to us being pattern-seeking beings connecting the dots and thinking there’s a real connection when there isn’t – it’s continual false positives. Is there a real causal connection or not? John tries to confirm his earlier claim – is there really an epidemic of magical thinking? Michael explains that it depends on the time period. In the late Middle Ages, pretty much everybody believed in the supernatural. Nowadays we live in a more rational, science-based society, but we’re not immune to believing things like astrology, palm reading, and so forth. Ken asks whether the propensity to magical thinking is part of the human mind, and Michael explains just how much of our brains are wired to connect patterns. The problem is that we tend to assume more things are real than are actually real.

Ken asks Michael whether we’re ever justified to use magical thinking. Is magical thinking ever right, or is it always a bad thing to do? Michael explains that it helps in making fast, impulsive decisions. When it gets to more complicated things, like the stock market or long-term consequential decisions, magical thinking can get flawed fast, so it’s better to carefully think through the pluses and minuses. The three debate whether a slight optimism bias is ever good. How can we balance total risk aversion with taking chances and believing blindly in certain things?

Michael, John, and Ken welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by tackling queries such as: is there hope for a cessation of magical thinking in the realm of politics? How can we avoid bias related to magical thinking in the political sphere? Also discussed is whether the propensity for magical thinking will always compete with science. Can science and reason overcome our “inner demons,” our tendency to engage in magical thinking?

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:54): Shuka Kalantari reviews magical moments in recent U.S. politics, from the financing of the invasion of Iraq to the hope for single payer health care to the promise of closing Guantanamo.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:00): Ian Shoales gets very superstitious with his quickfire look at political gossip sparked by courtesy of magical thinking.

Michael Shermer, Founding Publisher, Skeptic Magazine


Bonus Content


Research By

Spencer Giel

Upcoming Shows

26 May 2019

John Dewey and the Ideal of Democracy

John Dewey is regarded by some as the American philosopher. In the first half of the 20th century, he stood as the most prominent public...

02 June 2019

Matter and Energy - The Dark Side

All the matter we have ever observed accounts for less than 5% of the universe. The rest? Dark energy and dark matter: mysterious entities that we...

09 June 2019

The Limits of Tolerance

In order to reach compromise, people try to be tolerant of others with different beliefs. Despite its value, there are numerous factors that may...