“Magical Thinking” can only lead to disappointment

“An optimist sees the glass as half full; the pessimist sees the glass as half empty.” That old saying always evokes a smile, and we all know that the underlying truth is undeniable. But, I’m more intrigued as to WHY the pessimist sees the glass as half full. There has to be a reason. All behaviors, no matter how odd or seemingly unreasonable, serve some purpose—good, bad or indifferent. Some basic need is being satisfied when we conduct ourselves in a certain way.

People who dwell on the negative side of things (like our pessimist with the half-empty glass) often tell me that they are afraid of being let down or disappointed in life. So they set their sights low, curb their expectations, and hope that this will keep bad things from happening to them. That mindset is called “magical thinking.”

Examples of magical thinking include rituals and superstitions, where performing some unrelated act (such as wearing a “lucky ring” or carrying a rabbit’s foot) will bring about a lottery win, triumph over a health problem, or some other unconnected consequence. It is a vain attempt to link “correlation” with “causation.” For example, Joe wins a golf game while wearing his red shirt. As a result, he faithfully dons his red shirt whenever he plays golf. Though he continues to win and lose games, he chalks up every win to his red shirt. Since the effect (winning) happened at the same time as (correlated with) the cause (wearing the shirt), he mistakenly concludes that he won the game because he wore the shirt.

Another example is Joe’s wife. She believes that her thoughts or words can influence events, either by creating good luck, or bad luck as punishment for “bad thoughts.” She avoids talking about certain subjects (“speak of the devil and he’ll appear”), or believes that she can change things by uttering certain words or phrases. When, by chance, something does change, she smugly credits her treasured rituals.

We humans are good at recognizing patterns. What we don’t do quite as well is to distinguish between real patterns and those that just seem real—like Joe and his red shirt. A perfect example of this is the unique connection we feel with somebody who has the same birthday, despite the fact that, statistically, there is a 50% probability of two birthdays falling on the same day.

What makes this especially interesting to a psychologist is that these behaviors seem to be magnified in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and clinical depression. Magical thinking, in the form of ritual behavior, can serve to reduce their dread over “what can happen.”

In the same vein, a person suffering from depression will sometimes use rituals to create the illusion of self-assurance and poise. Depressed individuals often lack confidence, and carefully executed, routine behaviors can provide the false impression of being in control of their circumstances.

Whether the need for magical thinking stems from myth, habit, or something more physical, a common thread runs through it all: The need to stay in control. Regular readers of this column know that the most effective way to do that is to stay in touch with what’s real. A firm grounding in truth and certainty is a key factor—not only for staying ‘on top of things,’ but also for maintaining good mental health. Baseless fantasies very often do not end well. The reality ‘chickens’ will, eventually, come home to roost, and the accompanying disappointment can be devastating. Sadly enough, that disillusionment can even reinforce more of that very same magical thinking. Neurosis is often defined as doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Like a gambler on a losing streak, who desperately returns to the table again and again, the occasional brush with reality does little to break the cycle.

So how does one maintain control, without resorting to unconnected thoughts, the vagaries of ‘fate,’ and pointless behaviors? The best way is to apply the tried-and-true ‘scientific method’ to everyday life: (1) recognizing the problem, (2) collecting facts through observation, and (3) formulating a conclusion based on those facts. For example, Joe feels like the red shirt makes a difference in his golf game. But, just to make sure, he decides to wear a different shirt a few times and see whether things stay the same. Doing this will probably increase Joe’s anxiety (especially if he’s OCD to start with), but it’s a necessary step in the process of change. (This is why an objective third-party, such as a trained therapist, can sometimes be helpful.)

The enemy of dysfunction is reason. Instead of just saying, ‘Carrying a rabbit’s foot is silly, Stop it!’, ask yourself: ‘What REALLY controls the outcome of this situation?’ Give yourself credit for making your golf game (or other endeavor) as good as it is. Look at how you already control things more than you realize. Figure out, through facts and logic, what’s really working. Don’t waste energy on the false security of something that has nothing to do with anything.

Magical thinking never works. But, more than that, it was never necessary in the first place. Most of us already have more control over the course of our lives than we recognize. Besides, it’s not even necessary to exert control over everything in order to be happy and effective. The key is to build reliance on yourself and your accomplishments. Your ‘luck’ flows from your self-confidence, not from magic.