Cognitive scientists use the term “Magical Thinking” to describe a lack of causal reasoning. According to them, the belief in superstitions, lucky charms, and rain dances often falls into this category. But the term can be applied to any situation where one makes judgments based on a cause-and-effect rationale that wouldn’t hold up under scientific scrutiny. Simply put, magical thinking is (from a cogsci perspective) the analytical by-product that occurs when your hopes, fears, desires, prejudices, and beliefs take over your decision-making.
Child psychologists often use the term slightly differently. For a child, magical thinking often refers to conditions in which the cause and the effect are disassociated. For example, the kid sees you grab a remote control from the table and hears the stereo turn on, but doesn’t yet understand that the two actions are related. It is primarily this aspect of magical thinking that stage magicians rely on when performing illusions. In feats of magical reverse engineering, a good magician will think about a desired effect to be produced, and then work backwards to plan the method. The success of the effect is then greatly enhanced by the magician’s ability to conceal the method from the audience. In essence, the magician returns the audience to a state of child-like perception where causes and effects are distant strangers. Some embrace this sense of wonderment while others resent the inflicted feelings of naiveté. Yet, it should be noted that while such magical thinking evokes a child-like sense of the world, it does not limit us to childish behavior.
It would be easy to believe that magical thinking is merely the refuge of children, magic show audiences, and the superstitious; however, we bathe in magical thinking nearly every day. Many of our decisions are based not on scientific rationale but rather on information we receive from a variety of sources – friends, cultural influences, mass media, etc. And many of these sources are in fact assemblages of conflicting truths, traditional bias, and competing agendas. When we enter a theater to watch a magician perform we expect to be deceived. But what are our expectations when we read the paper, watch the news, and listen to politicians?
Most would agree that a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary for arriving at objective conclusions. But when skepticism dominates our perception of information, two things happen. First, our skepticism quickly morphs into cynicism. Secondly, the lack of dependable, believable information drives a wedge in our reasoning, pushing us further into a realm of conjecture, supposition, and intuition. In some respects this is a troublesome place – we begin to lose the scientia, or knowledge, that is the backbone of science, and all “truths” become relative. Darwinian evolution is treated as a creation story. Global climate change is regarded as a conspiracy of activist researchers. And carcinogenic pesticides banned at home get exported abroad only to make their way back to our salads and fruit bowls.
On the other hand, a greater reliance on our intuition and imagination can be liberating. The "magical thinking" of a child enables a shifting understanding of the objects around her in a manner which determines use based on needs and desires: an orange is only an orange if she is hungry, otherwise it is a ball; a toy; an experiment waiting to happen. As adults, we have been passively conditioned to regard oranges as nothing but food, or perhaps decoration. We consistently find ourselves impressioned by material goods that are produced and proffered with specific, limited uses in mind. The sheer magnitude of specialized markets evidences both a wide-scale ability to combine materials and resources in new and innovative ways AND a collective inability to creatively define our needs and desires for ourselves. For example, the Market has encouraged inventors to supply consumers with at least six different kinds of electronic rodent traps; yet, the alienated citizenry has yet to effectively deal with the infestation of rats in public office (many of whom may owe their tenure to Diebold’s own brand of electronic rat catchers).
In many instances, our collective decision-making doesn’t appear to be the least bit impaired by a lack of information, a lack of informed opinions, nor a lack of causal analysis. The research shows most agree whole-heartedly that cancer-causing food doesn’t belong on the dinner table, that religious agendas don’t belong in public schools, and corrupt politicians don’t belong in office. Yet these conditions persist not for a lack of wisdom or concern, but from a lack of will-power.
When the imagination is divorced from action, a more problematic form of magical thinking takes place. Often termed “wishful thinking” such a condition occurs when a child blurs the boundaries between thinking and doing; thus, creating confusion between wanting something to happen and actually working in a productive manner to bring about the desired results. How familiar is this terrain to the "adults" within our society? Is there not a similar confusion between thinking and doing expressed in the hypocrisy of those Americans who heed religious doctrines which champion the virtues of charity, tolerance, austerity, and non-violence while they lead lifestyles quite to the contrary? Too often is this childlike condition equally expressed by the "progressive"-minded members of the public who believe that shifting one's consciousness is, in and of itself, a political act which will lead to significant change. Unfortunately, power maintains itself quite nicely when people are content to simply 'think' about an alternative realty. Perhaps that is why both Dante and Buddhists claim that the lowest levels of "hell" are reserved for those who can do 'good' but choose to do nothing.
Wishful thinkers may help maintain the entertaining illusion that all is well, but they do little to combat those who will it otherwise. At best they are like the sympathetic audience being entertained by the misdirection at a magic show. At its worst, wishful thinking postures as real magic. Neither active nor engaged, it fails to reconcile the methods and the effects. The candles are lit. The incense smolders. But there’s no spirit to speak of.
While magical thinkers experience a range of failed and successful actions, wishful thinkers fail to act at all. In the absence of clear information, magical thinking allows us to creatively apply our understanding in action. It enables us to assess reality both as we are told it is and as we experience it ourselves. And greater still, it empowers us to shape the materials and forces in the world around us in order to truly unleash the creative and magical power of the multitudes.
It’s time to start making your wishes come true. So drop your cloak of transcendental escapism and grab your wand! Here are a few hot tips to help you reunite the volitional act of willing with causality. As always, good luck, and please let us know how it works for you by emailing us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. How can you spot the difference between the typical wishful thinker and your garden-variety magical thinker? Wishful thinkers hope that the fruit they buy next time from MegaFood won’t still smell like plastic and taste even worse. Magical thinkers start a community garden in that abandoned lot and then watch it grow into an orchard and a park and a playground and a…
2. Why wait for elections when you can begin building a better rat trap today?!? Although superstitions, curses, and prophecies may be scientifically unfounded, they can still be powerful motivators. So if you’re short on lobbyists and campaign contributions consider introducing your elected officials to some angels or demons. Even if your politicians only revere the power of the dollar, their voting constituency might feel otherwise.
3. Regardless of Science’s opinion of will power, it’s a common fallacy to view Science and Magick as oppositional. In the words of ol’ man Crowley, “Please remember that Magick is Science, that the Laws of Nature remain the same, however subtle may be the material with which one is working. It is, to put it brutally, a bigger miracle to destroy a fortress than an easy chair. You know this well enough; but the corollary is that it is nearly always a mistake to try to do things entirely off one’s own bat. It is much simpler to look for an existing force, in good working order, that is doing the sort of stuff that you need, and take from it, or control in it, just that bit of it that you happen to require.”
4. Like a prop in a magic show, protest tactics do little on their own. But when used properly in a complete routine, their potency can be truly marvelous. Plan your next protest like a good magician, and start by focusing on the effect you want to conjure. Then, work backwards to derive the most appropriate methods. For example, a march through a downtown financial district on a weekend does little to transform the status quo. But a march may serve as good misdirection while a more cunning stratagem unfolds behind the curtain.