Magical Thinking

Sunday, July 21, 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John explains that magical thinking isn’t only about outdated superstitions – it’s everywhere!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.


Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, June 13, 2019 -- 12:36 PM

According to one school of

According to one school of philosophy (or maybe more?...), there are countless dualisms in this world. We only notice these because we are able to make distinctions and do so everyday, whereas other life forms deal with the more pressing issues of food acquisition; self-preservation and reproduction. Religion and Magic are but two sides of the same coin, Magic seeking to explain the unexplained, via its own interpretations of mystery; Religion seeking to do so by invoking a deity (usually referred to as God). The power of irrational thinking vs. that of positive thinking. The notion that one of these approaches is better than the other is just wrong, as far as I can see. (But, my thinking is not important here, and, as I have stated before, people should believe whatever they feel good about believing.) All this demonstrates is that there is one enduring truth: humans are still wrapped up in the superstitions of what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind. Google it if you have not heard of him. Superstition is difficult to overcome. The fact that we have had several thousand years to do so illustrates its intractable stranglehold. I wonder though. If we were less superstitious or even non-superstitious, what kinds of progress might we make in how many areas of human endeavor? It is a simple enough question, but the implications are dauntingly complex.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, June 17, 2019 -- 12:35 PM

A few final comments related

A few final comments related to the magic/religion dualism:
a) Abstraction vs. Reality: A totality of circumstances may decide when a thing is best seen in the cool, dim, shadow of abstraction, or in the warm, bright light of reality. Yet, abstraction springs from the reality of human consciousness, therefore, they are inseparably linked (Neuman, 2019). This comment tries to elaborate Jaynes' notion of the bicameral mind: when religion offered some faith-based path, through which the common man might have something more concrete than the old magic to hold on to, the common man grasped at promises of salvation and everlasting life. These notions were the impetus for 'believing what ever they could feel good about believing'---magic was on its way out of the picture, for any but the hardened skeptic, or ignorant barbarian. Magic holds favor with a minority only. Keep in mind that magic and superstition are not equivalent to one another, though they have similar origins.

b) self-improvement: Many (perhaps most?) of us would be better off being less of who we are and more of who we could be (Neuman, 2019). As he became civilized, Homo sapiens sapiens realized the relative advantages of cooperation over the debilitating effects of recurrent warfare. This, too, was a step away from Jaynes' bicameral man: winning, the determinant 'might makes right' stance, lost its glitter...maybe we ought to try peaceful negotiations, rather than simply killing everyone. Maybe we could establish economy based on trade, and so on? We could even conserve precious human resources....hmmmmmm.

Jseibles24's picture


Sunday, July 14, 2019 -- 8:57 PM

I want to comment on

I want to comment on Reparartion and Magical Thinking! First reparation! It is possible and simple if you prepare to receive it. Magical Thinking is the way to prepare. No experiment is the answer but the answer is in the experiment. Don't measure for completion but only to estimate and always know the balance of chances in order for a brilliant victory.

I alone can show how reparation can be given and all I'll ask for is for someone to prepare a Peace Treaty. If it is at all accepted then The promise of Reparation will become an Inheritance.

Royal Priest,