Rituals and superstitions? Phooey! You don’t believe in hocus pocus – or do you?
Even the most skeptical minds are prone to magical thinking, whether they realize it or not, says New York-based writer Matthew Hutson. As he explains in his new book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane, carrying around a lucky rabbit’s foot or believing in ghosts may be utterly illogical. But there are scientific reasons for doing it, just the same.
Mr. Hutson, a former editor at Psychology Today with a background in cognitive neuroscience, is highly suspicious of otherworldly matters. So he was surprised to find the upside to unreasonable beliefs: They give us a sense of control, of purpose, and help us cope.Here are five signs that you’re engaging in magical thinking, without even knowing it. We asked Mr. Hutson to explain why it’s not always as foolish as it might seem:
You wear your lucky jersey while cheering for your home team.
What you’re doing: Channelling luck. This simple act won’t help your team score, but you do it anyway; just like deep-sea fishermen never leave port on Fridays, and certain lotto players always pick the same numbers. People adopt rituals and taboos, hoping arbitrary acts can have distant consequences.
Why you do it: “Some of that is due to ‘illusory correlation’ – if you do something and then something good happens, you might associate the two things as cause and effect,” Mr. Hutson says. We’re also inclined to believe in the maxim, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” If that lucky hat really works, you win. If it doesn’t, the worst that can happen is it doesn’t match your outfit.
How it helps: “It can be positive if the feeling of good luck brings you self-confidence, because that can then enhance performance,” he says. He notes in one study, participants who were given a so-called “lucky” golf ball made 35 per cent more successful putts than those thinking they were using regular balls.
You yell at your computer.
What you’re doing: Treating non-humans as human. In our minds, inanimate objects can be people, too. How else do you explain why you curse at your laptop when it crashes? Or why people name their vehicles? Or ascribe personalities to their Roomba vacuums? (Fess up: When was the last time you bantered with Siri on your iPhone?)
Why you do it: There’s an evolutionary rationale, Mr. Hutson says. “As one anthropologist said, ‘It’s better to mistake a boulder for a bear than to mistake a bear for a boulder.’ Whether it’s movement in the bushes or a computer crashing, we jump to the conclusion, at least subconsciously, that it’s some kind of agent, an intentional being you can interact with.”
How it helps: “Pet therapy, or even therapy with stuffed animals or robots, has been shown to be successful for a lot of people, where you treat an animal or thing as if it were a full companion,” he says. “It can reduce loneliness, which can have positive health effects.”
You make a wish when you blow out birthday candles.
What you’re doing:Practising mind over matter. You might have dismissed The Secret, pooh-poohing Rhonda Byrne’s film-turned-bestseller for its popularization of the “law of attraction,” the notion that sending out positive vibes makes the universe reciprocate. Still, you probably believe, to some extent, that you can will certain things to happen (i.e., the casual birthday wish as you huff and puff at your cake), or “jinx” yourself with negative thoughts.
Why you do it: “If two events happen in close temporal proximity, and they’re somehow related, we think the first thing may have caused the second,” Mr. Hutson says. “It’s possible we apply this principle even when the first incident is a thought; if you think something and it happens, it can seem as though the thought made it happen.”
How it helps: “The law of attraction does work, but not through magical means. It works through positive expectations and optimism. If you rehearse successful behaviour, then you’re more likely to perform that behaviour or to recognize opportunities when they arise.”
You’d rather be buried than cremated. (Or vice versa.)
What you’re doing: Planning for the great beyond. Even if we don’t actually believe in the afterlife, it’s hard for most of us not to care what happens at our funeral. Similarly, we often carry out others’ wishes after they’ve passed, saying, “They would’ve wanted it this way.”
Why you do it: “We have a hard time imagining the cessation of existence. If you picture what will happen after you die, you’re still picturing some sort of experience,” Mr. Hutson says. “Some people say they want to leave a legacy, as if this will actually matter to them, as if they will actually be around to appreciate these things.”
How it helps: “Thinking about your legacy can make you try to accomplish positive things while you’re alive. And to some degree, imagining other people still being around after they die can help you cope with a sudden, traumatic death.”
You value a family heirloom more than a costly, new object.
What you’re doing: Believing attributes rub off. Call it sentimentality, if you will. People tend to believe objects carry “essences,” some nebulous quality that’s passed on from the previous owner (which explains why celebrities’ possessions cost infinitely more on eBay than the same items owned by Joe Schmo) or imprinted by circumstance (a newly bought ring can never replace your wedding band).
Why you do it: “We have a general rule of thumb that properties can be transmitted through contact. Hot things transmit heat. Dirty things transmit dirt,” he says. “Perhaps we apply this rule of thumb so generally that we assume that even psychological properties can be transmitted through contact – for instance, evil or intelligence.”
How it helps: “It can be a good thing if it acts as inspiration for you, if you have an item that was owned by an idol or someone you admire. Or it can act to comfort you if it was something that was owned or touched by a family member. It’s like having that person with you.”
This interview was condensed and edited.