Monday, December 16, 2013

The Problem with Magical Thinking

Magical thinking can be defined as “believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation.”[1] This sort of cognition has led to beliefs in gods, spirits, luck, “alternative” medicines and therapies, magic, psychic powers, astrological signs, the power of prayer, etc. While magical thinking can produce some psychological benefits, there are simply too many dangers and downsides which make it harmful to society. Thinking Benefits

If you’ve read my posts regarding faith and prayer, you would be familiar with the psychology behind magical thinking. In short, magical thinking is akin to positive illusions, which can lead to optimism and confidence. These positive mental states are associated with psychological and physical health as well as success in life. In addition, the placebo effect can explain how fervent belief in something can actually change your physiology. Thus, alternative medical treatments and prayers can actually improve someone’s health via purely psychological means.

Beyond these benefits, there are also the social advantages of holding certain magical beliefs. For example, involvement in religious and spiritual communities increases the size of adherents’ social support systems. Also, within cultures which maintain certain magical beliefs, sharing these convictions allows individuals to feel included within the prevalent social group.

Reality Distortion

Strong adherence to untrue beliefs can distort reality in such a way as to blind people from the truth. As I’ve explained in my post regarding Knowing God, when people dedicate their imagination to a particular belief, it can drastically alter the way they think and view the world. This brain-rewiring can be so extensive that it can even generate hallucinations. In addition, as I’ve explained in my post regarding Blind Faith, once a person dedicates themselves to a belief, they will go to almost any length to maintain it. Thus, no amount of reason or evidence could ever change the mind of a true believer. This is dangerous because it not only makes it difficult to pull people away from false and dangerous beliefs, but it undermines the influence of reason, evidence, and science. Given that these are necessary for determining the best ways to promote human flourishing, reducing their influence harms us all.'s the Harm?

In order for magical beliefs to be psychologically beneficial, they need to be believed fervently. Thus, when believers in spiritual, magical, or alternative healing get sick, they truly believe their treatments will work. In some cases, this may be beneficial when the ailment is psychological, or when the treatments are coupled with evidence based medicine. However, there are many who disregard modern medicine altogether in favor of “alternative” treatments, and end up dying as a result. The website is full of examples of people getting hurt and/or dying because of their magical beliefs. One example was Sylvie Cousseau, who “was diagnosed HIV positive, but pursued alternative treatments for her disease including homeopathy, acupuncture and drinking her own urine. She eventually died of AIDS.”[2]

Beyond the physical harm from refusing proper medical treatment, people can be hurt in other ways from false beliefs. Consider the psychic Sylvia Mitchell who conned hundreds of thousands of dollars out of her victims because she claimed she could rid them of “negative energy.”[3] Also recall famous psychic Sylvia Browne who, in 2003 on the Montel William’s show, explained to the mother of Amanda Berry that her kidnapped daughter was “in heaven and on the other side.”[4] In 2013 Amanda broke free from her imprisonment by Ariel Castro who had kept her as a sex slave.[5] Thus, Sylvia convinced Amanda’s mother her daughter was dead, which unnecessarily placed an already emotionally vulnerable person though even more trauma.

Diversion of Resources

As I explained in my last post regarding Liberal Religion, humanity needs to be focused on finding and implementing the best ways to encourage human flourishing on this planet. When we focus our emotional and economic resources on unfounded and dangerous beliefs, humanity’s ability to flourish and survive into the next millennium is diminished. Unfortunately, a great deal of time and money are wasted on products and services founded on magical thinking. For example:
  • In 2007, Americans spent $33.9 billion dollars on alternative medicine treatments.[6] While a portion of these dollars do go to treatments which provide actual medical benefits such as vitamins and massage, suffice to say that too much still goes toward therapies that do not work beyond the placebo effect.
  • Psychic services, while not as lucrative as alternative medicine, does pulls in $2 billion a year in the US.[7]
  • The US Government subsidizes Chiropractic Colleges, despite the fact that chiropractic medicine is not driven by evidence or based on how the body actually works.[8]
  • In India, homeopathy is recognized as one of its national systems of medicine, and up until 2012, it was subsidized by the United Kingdom via a licensing program.[9]

Beyond simply diverting resources to supporting unfounded and potentially dangerous beliefs and practices, people are also giving a livelihood to charlatans. Again, consider the two psychics I mentioned earlier. These people peddle lies and false hopes for a living. Humanity should be funding scientists and humanitarian projects, not liars and thieves.


In the end, magical thinking gives people false hopes. Sometimes this manifests in positive ways such as optimism, confidence, and the placebo effect. However, the nature of this mode of thought entails the fervent belief in unfounded ideas and the suppression of reason, evidence, and science. As a result, people get hurt, resources are spent on nonsense in lieu of endeavors that help humanity, and charlatans are allowed to thrive with impunity.


Hilarious animated poem about Tim Minchin’s experience with a New Age woman named Storm

A great resource for learning about specific unsubstantiated beliefs “from Abracadabra to Zombies”

Sad repercussions of magical thinking in Africa

How paranormal claims tend to be based on unreliable anecdotes

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