Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hocus-Pocus about “Magical Thinking”

Unquestionably, human beings have a deep and inescapable predisposition to magical thinking; but to identify all instances in which we attribute to things a meaning that goes beyond what we can observe in them as “magical thinking” simply muddies the waters. Ritual actions can have a power that owes nothing to magical beliefs.

In view of how little power we mortals have over what happens in our lives, it is not surprising that we are suckers for magical thinking. Some people manifest this tendency in obvious ways: traditional superstitions about broken mirrors, black cats, saying the name of “the Scottish play” inside a theater, and the like; “lucky” charms and tokens; ritual repetitions of acts that were once accidentally connected with a good outcome; and so on. But magical thinking also has its subtler forms. It is in play when we give vent to chagrin by exclaiming “Just my luck!” To the extent that such an utterance is meant seriously, it implies that a tutelary spirit or individual “luck” orders events for one’s particular disadvantage, or that the events of one’s life are shaped by an invisible power that makes things come out worse for oneself than for others. Of course, no one with a modicum of intellectual self-respect and the capacity for critical reflection seriously affirms such an idea. But the fact remains that, when uncontrollable and unforeseeable events have turned out against us, there is some consolation in entertaining such cosmically self-centered ideas. As I have heard some people say: “I’m not superstitious—just stitious.”

An article by Matthew Hutson, published in Psychology Today in March of 2008, purports to explore this very subject: the persistence of magical thinking even in people who are not aware of engaging in it. (The article is, at the moment of writing, the second hit on Google for “magical thinking,” right after the corresponding entry in Wikipedia.) After presenting an anecdote about a piano formerly owned by John Lennon (about which more in a moment), Hutson says:
Maybe you’re not a Beatles fan. Maybe you even hate peace and love. But you are wired to find meaning in the world, a predisposition that leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think. Even if you’re a hard-core atheist who walks under ladders and pronounces “new age” like “sewage,” you believe in magic.
Hutson’s first positive assertion—that we are all “wired to find meaning in the world”—is, I take it, indisputable and unobjectionable (apart perhaps from the ugliness of the computer-geek metaphor of describing human beings as being “wired” somehow). His second assertion, that this predisposition “leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think,” and that, even if you are of a skeptical bent, you believe in magic, is rather disturbing, at least to a skeptically minded person like me. Reading that claim makes me keen to know what evidence he has for such a bold assertion. Here is a sample of what Hutson offers:
Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.
The first observation is that if a streetlight goes out just when you honk your horn, you “irresistibly perceive” a causal connection in virtue of the nature of your “visual system,” no matter how well aware you are that there is none. This is supposed to show that your “visual system” “believes” in a causal connection. The second observation is that if you throw darts at a photo of a baby on a dart board, your aim will be bad: this is supposed to show that “on some level” you are equating the photo of a baby with a baby.

Both arguments are utter rubbish. They turn on the strategic use of conceptual slippage. Of course, two events occurring at the same time may strike me as if they were causally connected; I might say that they look to me as if they were causally connected. But this is not tantamount to my believing that the events are causally connected.

In fact, Scholl (the psychologist quoted within the passage) seems to be aware of this point; he tries to avoid absurdity by saying that my visual system “believes” in a connection, even when I do not. But it makes no sense to attribute beliefs to a mere part of a human being. Whatever it means to say that my “visual system” “believes” something (if it means anything coherent at all), that does not mean that I believe it. The argument therefore gives no evidence of the occurrence of magical thinking. Similarly, in the case of the dart board, all that has been shown is that the photo has an effect on people that is similar to the effect of an actual baby: no evidence whatever has been provided to support the unverifiable and obscurantistic claim that “on some level” people believe that the photo is a baby.

Hutson’s entire argument rests on equivocations of this nature. His most villainous equivocation is perpetrated with the very term that forms the title of the article, “magical thinking”; for he uses it to cover both belief in unobservable causal connections and the attribution to things of a meaning that is not grounded in observable causal connections. By means of this conflation, he illegitimately counts instances of the latter (invested meaning) as instances of the former (magical thinking properly so called). Consider the anecdote with which the article opens, concerning a tour made by John Lennon’s piano years after the musician’s death.
“It gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years,” says Caroline True, the tour director and a colleague of the Steinway’s current owner, singer George Michael. Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone. According to Libra LaGrone, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, “It was like sleeping in your grandpa’s sweatshirt at night. Familiar, beautiful, and personal.”

“I never went anywhere saying this is a magic piano and it’s going to cure your ills,” True says. But she consistently saw even the most skeptical hearts warm to the experience—even in Virginia, where the piano landed just a month after the massacre [at Virginia Tech]. “I had no idea an inanimate object could give people so much.”
Where exactly is magical thinking supposed to be evident in this account? Hutson never says, though he presents the story as an illustration. He seems to think the presence of magical thinking too obvious to require explanation. Perhaps he reasons that, since the piano is not John Lennon himself, or an image or a recording of him, but is merely a piano that was once owned and used by him, anybody who regards it as anything other than an old piano must believe that Lennon is somehow actually present in it.

Any anthropologist who made such a leap in interpreting human behavior would be derided as incompetent. So I suggest a more charitable interpretation: Hutson has conflated the common human practice of endowing objects with a significance that goes beyond what can be observed in them with magical thinking properly so called. I find this interpretation confirmed by what he says further on in the article:
To some, John Lennon’s piano is sacred. Most married people consider their wedding rings sacred. Kids with no notion of sanctity will bust a lung wailing over their lost blanky. Personal investment in inanimate objects might delicately be called sentimentality, but what else is it if not magical thinking? There’s some invisible meaning attached to these things: an essence. A wedding ring or a childhood blanket could be replaced by identical or near-identical ones, but those impostors just wouldn’t be the same.

Hutson’s rhetorical question “What else is it if not magical thinking?” is either disingenuous or obtuse. The question of the nature of our attachment to particular possessions, when that attachment is grounded in the history of the items rather than in their observable characteristics, deserves to be posed seriously, not used as a mere rhetorical device for counting all instances of such attachment without examination as “magical thinking.” No doubt, some people do engage in magical thinking with regard to such things: some may believe that the items in question bring them luck, or that getting rid of them would bring disaster, or that they allow them to communicate with the spirit of the former owner, or things of that nature. But not everyone who cherishes a possession in this way holds such beliefs. I doubt that even most such people do.

A simple instance: A friend of mine once gave me a small stuffed toy as a kind of joke gift. For a long time, I kept it atop a dresser, where it would gather dust, because I had no particular use for it and it simply did not fit in with anything else that I own. After a few years, when I was cleaning the clutter out of my apartment, I included it with the items to be given away. Now for all that I knew, my friend might have forgotten that she ever gave me such a gift, or might not care the least whether I kept it or dumped it; I certainly hoped that, if she knew of my discarding the toy, she would not blame me for it. But I could not help feeling, as I think anyone in such a position would feel, that the act of getting rid of the toy had about it something of a desecration. Why? Because the toy was given to me by a friend and was a palpable token of our friendship.

I don’t think that anyone will have any difficulty understanding this fact. But to attribute my feelings about the toy to “magical thinking,” a term that properly designates a belief in supernatural agencies and occult causal connections, is groundless. Hutson’s leaps from observations on how people endow physical tokens with meaning to the conclusion that they are indulging in magical thinking is as groundless and irrational as (genuine) magical thinking itself.

One thing that particularly annoys me about people who reason in the way that Hutson does is that, while they claim to be uncovering the depths of irrationality in human beings, the arguments that they use actually presuppose an implausibly and dogmatically rationalistic way of regarding human behavior. They see people behave in ways that don’t make sense if you try to explain them as attempts to secure particular ends by means of observable causal connections. You might think that the logical conclusion to draw is that the behavior in question simply is not an attempt to secure any end beyond itself. But instead of drawing that conclusion, they conclude that the behavior must be an attempt to secure an end based on belief in an unobservable causal connection. I don’t deny that some people do things of this nature; but to interpret all ritualistic behavior by human beings in this way is a mere rationalistic prejudice. Hutson’s thinking not only makes magical thinking seem much more pervasive than it is, but gives too little credit to the inherent power and significance of ritual practices.

Bibliographical note

Readers of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” (available in the volume Philosophical Occasions, 1912–1951, edited by James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 115–55) will recognize its influence on my critique of Hutson. For instance: “Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of one’s beloved. That is obviously not based on the belief that it will have some specific effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at satisfaction and achieves it. Or rather: it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied” (123). Or this remark, which, whether or not it is fair to Frazer, is the best analysis I have seen of a certain kind of scientistic obtuseness: “His explanations of primitive practices are much cruder than the meaning of these practices themselves” (131). My observations on the senselessness of imputing beliefs to visual systems is also indebted to the work of Wittgenstein, by way of the work of his disciple Peter Hacker. See M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), ch. 3, “The Mereological Fallacy in Neuroscience.”

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  1. Continuing your theme of "different ways to look at" something, there are different ways of thinking about magic, three of which concern me here.

    (1) A quantifiable, measurable effect caused by an object.
    (2) A quantifiable, measurable effect caused by one's belief that an object is magic.
    (3) A quantifiable, measurable effect caused by others belief that an object is magic.

    To take a couple examples: Most of us will agree there is no evidence that ladder cause bad things to happen if you walk under them. But some people do believe it, and their belief it is so changes might change their behavior, causing bad things to happen. You and I may not believe in fairies and trolls. But Icelanders -- some of the most urbane Europeans out there -- take them seriously enough to spend lots of money to build roads around rocks, trees and hills believed to be the homes of such spirits. Some Chinese are willing to spend thousands of dollars to buy cellphone numbers with lots of 8s in them because they are perceived to bring good luck.

    The point is, if enough people believe something is magic, in the senses (2) and (3) above, it can have causal effects, even if the thing in question has no effects in sense (1). The world was not flat because everyone thought it was flat, but that doesn't deny that everyone's thinking it was flat changed the way people behaved.

  2. Hutson is guilty of sloppy usage.

  3. To Sherry: Perhaps Hutson is sloppy in his usage, but I think the more important point is that he is sloppy in his thinking. He doesn't just apply the term "magical thinking" according to an eccentric meaning: he relies on one meaning to apply it in his examples and then on another meaning in the conclusions that he draws from the examples. It's the fallacy of equivocation rather than mere solecism.

    To Rogueregime: I have trouble with the idea of identifying magic as a "quantifiable, measurable effect" of anything. Isn't it built into the idea of magic that we can't measure or quantify it? Notions like "magic," "miracle," and "supernatural" are all difficult to define because it is not possible to come up with unambiguous illustrations of any of them.

    To set aside questions of definition and just to take your examples, I am a bit surprised that you chose only cases in which the magical effect that some people attribute to an object and the actual effect of their belief in its magic are entirely distinct. More interesting, I think, are cases in which the two coincide: people's belief in the magical effect of the object actually produces the effect. This is what occurs in cases of suggestion or the placebo effect.

    For example, I have read that the effects of acupuncture can be obtained without actually sticking needles into people. You just have a practitioner go through the usual patter and touch the subject's skin with something sharp so that they think that they are having needles inserted (on a part of their body that they can't see, of course). I have also seen someone in a video who claimed to have devised magnets that produced the same beneficial effects as acupuncture. I believe both that that man was a charlatan and that his claim may have been perfectly true!

    I once derived quite sensible benefit from a session of acupuncture, but now that I know that the effect depends on the credulity of the subject, I am not inclined to go back, because I fear that my skeptical attitude will deprive me of the potential benefits. The best satirical representation of this effect that I can think of was a sketch by Monty Python's Flying Circus concerning a magician who erected apartment buildings ("blocks of flats") by conjuring them into existence. People could live safely in them as long as they believed in them, but the buildings started to fall down as soon as a resident had doubts.

  4. My understanding is that magic concerns causal mechanisms, not quantifiability of results. Studies have been done to determine if "praying" for someone sick (and is unaware of the praying) improves their health. The results haven't been promising, but in principle there's no reason why an effect couldn't be measured. If such prayer had a measurable effect, I think it's fair to say it would be "miraculous" insofar as science provides no explanation -- potential or otherwise -- for how my prayer might have an direct causal effect on someone else's health.

    The plaecbo effect is an excellent example of what I was trying to say, but the deck is stacked if we call it that. Placebos by their nature are not the cause of the effects we can measure; it's the individual's belief that it is that causes the effect.

    My original point was simply that there is more than one dimension to "magic" and that even if you don't believe in it -- even if you believe that all observed effects can potentially be explained in scientific terms -- it may still have effects because people believe it to be true.

  5. It seems that Hutson's point is that we are all engaged in the same cognitive procedures that give significance to things which lack it. The difference is that the more rational individuals understand that connection to be purely emotional and don't expect it to have some impact on any aspect of reality other than their own emotions.