The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking:
How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane
by Matthew Hutson
Penguin Publishing, 2012
305 Pages (Kindle)
There was a man I knew who would say “Lord willing” before doing anything of significance.
Before a major trip: “I’m going on vacation, Lord willing.”
Before setting up a cookout: “See you next Tuesday at our place, Lord willing.” It was his lucky charm. If he didn’t say it, perhaps God would remind him who is in charge and his plans would fall through.
This same person turned to me and said, “Can you believe those Catholics? They put so much trust in those superstitious idols.”
Aside from the unrecognized irony on his part, it was a lesson in the nuances of magical thinking and how we all easily miss our own engagement in it. Matthew Hutson’s The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane is one incredible reminder that none of us are immune to irrational beliefs.
And by “none,” I mean none.
“Most of the world is religious, and millions more are openly superstitious, spiritual, or credulous of the paranormal,” says Hutson. “But in this book I argue that we all believe in magic—luck, mind over matter, destiny, jinxes, life after death, evil, and heavenly helpers—even when we say we don’t.”
One might imagine a book like this to fixate on the religious mind and the supernatural, but Hutson’s magical thinking is often far more mundane. “For the most part I don’t cover explicit and culturally transmitted beliefs in religion, magic, and the paranormal,” says Hutson. “Plenty of excellent books exist on those. I’m more interested in our shadow beliefs—those inklings of the numinous that we deny—and beliefs we don’t even recognize as magical.”
This he does successfully.
There are plenty of moments when he does connect to religion in some form, pulling from currently popular discussions on agency detection and a theory of the mind, and how these could lead to beliefs in divine beings (for more on these ideas see my review of Minds and Gods), but getting at the superstitions that fill our daily routines, this is where the real meat of this book is and where his research shines. One is hard pressed to make it through just a few pages without discovering a study and new research that gets at the manifold expressions of magical thinking.
Magical thinking is pervasive. It may be easy to see it when someone says they have a piece of toast with Jesus’ face on it, as some have claimed and made a killing on eBay as a result. And if a guy like José Luis de Jesús Miranda, who claims to be Jesus and hears the voice of God, manages to have thousands of followers, churches in 24 countries, and radio stations across the world, then some magical thinking is obvious and frightening.
But what if magical thinking is far more subtle and less sensational than that?
What’s more human than sentimentality? And yet, sentimentality for particular objects is just as illogical as belief in ghosts. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t be happy with replicas of sacred items, even if the replica was identical in every way.
“How would you react if someone showed up at your doorstep with a personal belonging of one of your heroes? Chances are you’d get a little weak-kneed or at least become intrigued.” There is something about owning, or coming into contact with, an original; its place in history makes it special. John Lennon’s piano is, for example, now in the possession of George Michael, and his tour director, Caroline True feels that the piano “gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years.”
“Authentic objects are sometimes said to contain a special essence,” notes Hutson, “and the belief that objects have hidden defining qualities is called psychological essentialism.”
We humans can treat objects as we do disease. There is something either negative or positive that inheres, and like a contagion, that quality can be passed on to the next owner. This is, of course, the biggest concept behind one of my favorite shows, Warehouse 13. Each week there are objects that have special qualities, good or bad, based on their connection to the original owner. If you own Lizzie Borden‘s mirror compact, as the theory goes, you are going to be moved to murder your loved ones.
While many would recognize this as obvious science fiction, there is an element of truth to it. There is an added currency, however much a figment of our imaginations, that comes from possessing an object that is connected to a famous person. For example:
…in one study, researchers asked American adults to picture someone else wearing one of Mr. Rogers’s sweaters without knowing its history. Eighty percent of subjects said that there was at least a 10 percent chance that Mr. Rogers’s sweater would make the oblivious wearer friendlier— and that it would be due to a transfer of ‘essence.’
Even the anti-supernaturalist icon, Richard Dawkins, says Hutson, is not immune to this thinking.
And you know magical thinking runs deep when even Richard Dawkins, a fellow skeptic and the author of The God Delusion, falls prey. As Bruce Hood pointed out to me, in the documentary The Genius of Charles Darwin, Dawkins endorses historicity by picking up a preserved pigeon at the Natural History Museum in Tring, England, and remarking, “It’s a very weird feeling. These are actually Darwin’s own specimens.” (Later in that documentary, Dawkins pulls a book off a shelf and says, “This is the most precious book in my collection. It’s a genuine first edition Origin of Species….This book made it possible no longer to feel the necessity to believe in anything supernatural.”)
Hutson draws other interesting connections. Phantom limbs, for example, are fascinating examples of how the human mind can project the existence of something that absolutely no longer exists. He notes the very spiritual-like feelings people have for their lost limbs and then connects this idea to Joan Didion’s In The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she discovers that she cannot get herself to give away the shoes of her deceased husband. “I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.”
Didion does not retain the shoes for her phantom legs. She retains them for her phantom husband. ‘The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought,’ she wrote….Just as stray activity in amputees’ brains is projected outward to form a ghostly limb, neural activity in the grieving can project outward to place a missing loved one back in the world, or in the netherworld, heaven, hell, or wherever he can continue being the person you remember.’
And perhaps this is where the subtitle of Hutson’s book sheds light on what is so special about these moments; these “Irrational Beliefs” help to “Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.” Coping mechanisms, like projecting the ghost of a loved-one or the hope of a deceased spouse’s return from whatever heavenly land they have traveled, is something that can help human beings move on safely.
Magical thinking’s side benefit is that it can change the way we approach the world and even how we perform. Reconsider the contagion idea; a “recent study found that subjects made 38 percent more golf putts when told the putter they were using belonged to the PGA player Ben Curtis than when told nothing about the club,” notes Hutson. “When using objects with special associations, credence in contagion can increase confidence and enable one to persist at difficult tasks.”
Where one believes humans should draw the line on magical thinking will vary from person to person. Any hope of vanquishing our magical thinking is, as Matthew Hutson shows, a hope to be less human and perhaps futile. I know that if something happened to my wife, I’d probably be sleeping with her pillow for the rest of my life. And depending on your worldview, you may entirely dismiss Hutson’s naturalistic approach. Still, I can’t help but wish that everyone would take a few moments to challenge their magical thinking—even just a little.
Chapters (“Objects Carry Essences,””Symbols Have Power,” “Actions Have Distant Consequences,” “The Mind Knows No Bounds,” “The Soul Lives On,” “The World is Alive,” and “Everything Happens for a Reason”) are logically organized and fascinating. Hutson defines terms and writes accessibly. He is also open about his own magical thinking, something I appreciated.
The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking is an excellent book for those who love cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. Pick it up and it will make you question your own rationality, with the side benefit of laughing at the irrationality of others. I’m guessing that just owning it will make you feel smarter.