Magical thinking: concept and characteristics

Magical thinking has accompanied humanity since the beginning of time. We have a natural tendency to establish cause and effect relationships without logically checking them; This predisposition is very marked in childhood and is maintained if the context in which we find ourselves promotes it, as has happened in many cultures.

In this article we will define magical thinking and explain what its causes and functions are , according to the existing literature. To finish, we will present some significant examples and contexts in which this type of reasoning appears regularly.

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What is magic thinking?

The concept “magic thinking” is used in psychology and anthropology to describe illogical attributions of causality that are made without empirical evidence , especially when the person believes that his thoughts may have consequences in the external world, either by his own action or by the intermediation of supernatural forces.

Magical thinking is present in the vast majority of cultures in the world. It is a natural process, probably with a biological basis similar to that of classical conditioning, by which we rely on similarity or temporal or spatial contiguity between elements, for example, to establish a non-demonstrable causal relationship between them.

Thus, a girl who believes that if she misbehaves the man in the bag will kidnap her, she is falling into this logical error. The same is the case with tribes that perform ritual dances to invoke the rain or with people who think that their wishes will be fulfilled if they light a candle and entrust themselves to a certain saint.

The belief that the mind has power over matter , as if it were a separate entity rather than a consequence of it, may be at the basis of many cases of magical thinking. However, it is a concept with a very broad meaning, which is why it has been used to refer to very diverse processes.

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Causes and functions

Magical thinking has been attributed mainly to two facts: the contiguity between events (eg “My father died because I wished him death the day before”) and associative thinking, which consists of establishing relationships based on similarities. For example, the Mapuche believed that they would gain the strength of their enemies if they ate their hearts.

Authors like Claude Lévi-Strauss or Thomas Markle have affirmed that magical thought has adaptive functions in certain circumstances . However, when it comes to attributing causes, this type of reasoning tends to fail much more frequently than that based on empirical evidence.

One of the main functions of magical thinking is the reduction of anxiety. When people find themselves in a stressful situation that they cannot solve, it is easier for them to associate the reduction of anxiety with arbitrary elements in order to obtain a certain sense of control. For example, in agoraphobia the use of “amulets” is common.

Even in today’s world, where we think logic predominates, magical thinking still has a significant presence and is sometimes even useful. A good example is the placebo effect, whereby believing that a false remedy is going to be useful in curing a disease causes an improvement in symptoms.

Examples of magical thinking

We can find signs of magical thinking in a large number of everyday situations, although in some cases this type of reasoning can be a sign of pathology, particularly when beliefs occur in adulthood and are not shared by the environment.

1. Childish egocentrism

Between the ages of 2 and 7, during the preoperational stage described by Piaget , children believe that they can modify elements of the world with the mind, either voluntarily or involuntarily. At this age, thought is characterized by difficulty in understanding abstract concepts and by self-centeredness, or inability to adopt the perspective of others.

These types of ideas appear more commonly when the death of a loved one occurs; in these cases children tend to believe that they have been at fault in some way. However, arbitrary causal attributions and illogical thinking in general, favored by a lack of understanding of the world, are  very typical in childhood .

Magical thinking is very common in children because it is inherent to human nature. As cognitive development progresses, the frequency of this type of ideas is attenuated , at least in case the social context favors rational thinking; if this is not the case, magical beliefs can be passed down from generation to generation.

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2. Superstition and supernatural thinking

Superstitions are beliefs without logical foundation or scientific evidence. They are a type of magical thought, although it is difficult to delimit what exactly constitutes a superstition; For example, religions do not tend to be seen as superstitions despite the fact that the only criterion that distinguishes them is that they are shared by many people.

As with magical thinking in general, superstitions are more common when people are in stressful situations. Thus, it is typical that those who do not firmly believe in the existence of gods but do not entirely rule it out try to communicate with them when they are desperate.

Some superstitions and supernatural ideas are transmitted through culture. This has happened with innumerable myths throughout history, and it is also common for children to be led to believe that there are Santa Claus, the Three Kings or the Little Mouse Perez. Constructs like fate and karma are also good examples of magical thinking.

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3. Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Sometimes the characteristic rituals of  obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be classified as magical thinking. This is more frequent in cases where the person is not aware that they have a disorder or exaggerates the realism of their convictions.

People with OCD in particular often believe, or at least fear, that a disproportionately serious misfortune can happen if they don’t perform the ritual; For example, someone with this disorder might think that if a lit cigarette butt falls on the carpet, their entire floor will burn in seconds.

4. Delusions and psychosis

Magical thinking occurs frequently in delusions, whether or not they occur in the context of a schizophrenia spectrum disorder . Although irrational beliefs tend to have a relatively credible structure in delusional disorder, in the case of schizotypal disorder and, above all, paranoid schizophrenia, beliefs are more bizarre.


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