Do you believe in magic?
At a young age, most (if not all) children believe in magic. They believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc. Some children grow out of this type of thinking. They either question the existence of a man who delivers presents to the entire world in one night, or the news is broken to them by some kid on the playground.
The idea of Santa Claus is one of the most popular examples of magical thinking, but this type of thinking does not start or end with Old Saint Nick. This page is about magical thinking in psychology, when it can be dangerous, and how to use magic thinking effectively to achieve your goals.
Let’s get started.
What Is Magical Thinking?
Psychologists would define magical thinking as the idea that a person’s thoughts, wishes, or sometimes actions may influence the course of our world. But these aren’t just any thoughts, wishes, or actions. These actions often have no proven connection to the results.
For example, we may believe that if we take an axe to a tree, it will eventually fall down. That’s not magical thinking. Gravity, center of balance, and other measurements show us that once a tree reaches a certain point, it will topple.
We may believe that if we think hard enough about a tree falling down, the tree will fall down. Or, we may believe that if we think hard enough about a tree staying up, even the power of an axe won’t tear it down. The power of thought does not have a direct influence on the tree. The tree, despite what we believe, is subject to gravity and the natural order of the world. Believing that we can change this order is magical thinking.
Magical Thinking in Everyday Life
Even if you believe that you are a logical person, you likely engaged in magical thinking at one point in your life.
Magical thinking has been studied by psychologists like Jean Piaget. He believed that children up to age 10 were egocentric. They see themselves at the center of the universe. This leads to a belief that they control what happens in the outside world.
This could be one reason why fairy tales or stories about magical characters appeal to children. Around the age of 10, Piaget says, magical thinking starts to wear off. Children begin to understand that the world revolves without their input, and they begin to question how magical characters fit into this natural working world.
Myths and Religion
But not everyone abandons magical thinking entirely. Just think about the stories in religion. A man comes back to life after he’s been dead for three days. Sacrifices to Gods lead to an increase in rainfall. A burning bush talks to someone.
Science cannot prove that gods exist or that miracles happen because of prayer. Many religious stories, throughout all religions, may be considered the products of magical thinking.
Adults who do not believe in any religion may still be guilty of magical thinking. Have you ever been told to hold your breath while passing by a graveyard? Or to avoid walking under ladders? Maybe you know an adult who has a “lucky shirt” that helps their favorite football team win every game. All of these superstitions are magical thinking, even if you believe that they work every time.
Magical Thinking and Mental Illness
The examples listed above aren’t “bad.” Many people would argue that they’re necessary. Religion gives many people a purpose in life. Superstitions are silly and fun. But not all types of magical thinking are harmless.
When many cognitive behavior therapists talk about “magical thinking,” they’re referring to an extreme form of magical thinking that is present in people with OCD.
Examples of Magical Thinking and OCD
You might think of someone with OCD as a person that spends hours straightening pencils or has to flip the lights on and off a thousand times. Have you ever wondered why someone with OCD displays these behaviors?
Often, the reason is based in magical thinking. These behaviors are often rituals meant to influence the physical world around the person performing the behaviors. If the person cannot flip the lights on and off a thousand times, or if their pencils are not straight, they believe that something bad might happen or that they will lose control.
What makes someone with OCD stand out is that their rituals affect their ability to function in society.
The OCD subreddit has a lot of great resources if you believe that you might have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. User carlyyay even talks about her experiences with OCD and magical thinking:
“I hate magical thinking OCD…Constantly fearing doing an activity I used to do in the past will make time warp and I’ll be back to how I was during that time. I know why I have this, I am always trying to be a better person and be better at things. I think back about when I wasn’t as good and I guess I’m ashamed, which is absolutely ridiculous. It stems from insecurities, which is hard to get over.”
In the comments, people offer her support and share their own experiences with magical thinking and OCD.
Magical Thinking and Manifestation
Magical thinking is complicated. No one wants their rituals to spiral into obsessive-compulsive disorder. But if everyone were to abandon their religion tomorrow, the world might dissolve into chaos for a bit. If magical thinking were completely written off, how could we talk about the power of manifestation, affirmations, and visualization?
Books like The Secret often come under fire because they push a type of magical thinking. If you visualize something really hard, you’ll get it. This is definitely a form of magical thinking.
But it’s also a very simple form of magical thinking. This simple connection between visualization and results doesn’t work. It’s also not the only ideas that self-help books, coaches, and positive psychologists are trying to share with the world.
If you believe that only visualizing a Lamborghini will put one on your front doorstep, you’re wrong. No positive psychologist will tell you that visualization is the only thing you need to do. So let’s dive deeper. There are studies that show the power of visualization and goal-setting. When you can only think about Lamborghinis, for example, you are more likely to see opportunities for buying one. You are more likely to see a notice in the paper showing a Lamborghini for sale. You are more likely to prioritize buying a Lamborghini over ordering take-out every night.
Could visualization be the first step in getting that Lamborghini? Sure. Is it the only step toward getting that Lamborghini? Are your thoughts causing you to get that Lamborghini? No. Other actions, including saving your money and doing proper research, contribute to the eventual results.
How to Treat Magical Thinking
Magical thinking is a bad habit to get into if you rely on it, or take it to extreme levels. As you evaluate the path you are taking to your goals, ask yourself how much magical thinking plays into this path and how you can bring yourself back to Earth to achieve your goals.
If magical thinking is seriously impacting your ability to live a productive life, reach out t a professional. A therapist with experience in OCD, religious trauma, or any other cause of your magical thinking can guide you back to more rational thinking patterns.