Magical Thinking

by F.

Emily Pronin, Assistant Professor of Pychology and Public Affairs at Princeton, and others (including Daniel Wegner of Harvard) have been doing some provocative experiments on “magical thinking.” Magical thinking is, basically, faulty causal reasoning. For instance, I eat a banana and then, moments later, find out that I won Powerball. Clearly, it was eating the banana that caused the win and from now on I’ll make sure I never run out of bananas.

Anyway, Pronin et al have found (yet again) that this sort of fucked up erroneous reasoning is not particularly uncommon. One of the experiments involved voodoo hexes (which have always worked for me, by the way). According to a Princeton press release,

subjects were led to think evil thoughts about another person who they believed was also a subject in the experiment (but who actually worked for the researchers). In a control condition, they were not led to think such thoughts.

Each subject then stuck pins in a voodoo doll representing the alleged victim, who was seated at the table across from them. When the “victim” then faked having a headache, those who had harbored evil thoughts were more likely than their peers in a control condition to believe they had caused it.

Note to self: buy voodoo doll, pins, and pair of jumper cables. In another experiment,

subjects watched as a basketball player shot baskets. Spectators were more likely to perceive that they had caused his success if they had first been asked to visualize his success (“Imagine the ball falling through the hoop”).

In another experiment conducted at a live basketball game (Princeton vs. Harvard), some spectators were given a task before the start of the game to think about it by reviewing the potential of the starting players. Other audience members were not given this assignment. At halftime, those who had thought about the players’ performance reported personally having had more of an impact on the game than those in the control condition. In another study, people watching the NFL Super Bowl on television felt more responsible for that game’s outcome the more they thought about the game while watching.

The moral—other than that you, too, should buy some voodoo dolls? Well,

people subscribe to magical beliefs despite the fact that these beliefs defy any rational scientific analysis. The feeling of mental power arises because people perceive an association between their thoughts about an external event and the occurrence of that event. Pronin and her co-authors noted, “This research suggests that magical beliefs are commonplace and that a bit of magical thinking appears even in ordinary people and circumstances.”

So the next time you hear someone say, “But how can so many people be just wrong about X,” whip out this factoid. Sometimes we all just believe stupid shit. That’s life. Of course, this research should not in any way undermine your faith in the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa. Because, I mean, that’s different: we know they exist.

And now we get to “historical antecedents” for this view that human causal reasoning sucks because, well, that’s sort of the way this kind of little essay-thingy goes. Sometimes it’s the lead (“Hymen Podgorny famously wrote that Y in 1524, but not until this year did scientists show Y in the lab”); sometimes it comes in the body, like here. So: Hume got there first, as far as I can see. In 1740, he wrote about how causality was more or less an illusion:

We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always conjoin’d together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable. We cannot penetrate into the reason of the conjunction. We only observe the thing itself, and always find that from the constant conjunction the objects acquire an union in the imagination.

Pronin et al’s paper is called Everyday magical powers: the role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence, J Pers Soc Psychol. 2006 Aug; 91(2): 218-31 and can be found via PubMed.

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