Is your thinking magical?

People who dwell on the negative aspects of things often tell me that they’re afraid of being let down or disappointed. They set their sights low, curb their expectations, and hope it will keep bad things from happening. That mindset is called “magical thinking.”

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

Another example: Joe’s wife 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, 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 distinguish between real patterns and those that just seem real. A perfect example of this is the unique connection we feel with somebody who has the same birthday, despite the fact that statistically there’s a 50% probability of two birthdays falling on the same day. Interestingly, these behaviors are magnified in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and clinical depression. Magical thinking, in the form of ritual behavior, helps soothe their dread over “what can happen.” Likewise, 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 behaviors can provide the false impression of being in control.

Magical thinking may stem from myth, habit, or something more physical, but 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 is key to staying on top of things and maintaining good mental health. Baseless fantasies cannot end well, as the reality ‘chickens’ eventually come home to roost. And the disappointment can be devastating. Sadly, that disillusionment reinforces more of the same magical thinking. We define neurosis 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, the occasional brush with reality does little to break the cycle.

So how does one maintain control without resorting to the vagaries of ‘fate’ and pointless behaviors? Simple: Apply the tried-and-true ‘scientific method’ to everyday life. First, recognize the problem. Second, collect facts through observation, and third, formulate your 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 his anxiety (especially if he’s OCD to start with), but it’s a necessary step toward change. Sometimes an objective third-party like a trained therapist can be helpful.

Reason is the enemy of dysfunction. Instead of saying, ‘Carrying a rabbit’s foot is silly,’ ask yourself, ‘What REALLY controls the outcome of this situation?’ Give yourself credit for making your golf game (or whatever) as good as it is. Look at how you already control other things. Figure out logically 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. Most of us already have more control over our lives than we recognize. Besides, it’s not even necessary to control everything in order to be happy. The key is to build reliance on facts and on yourself. Luck flows from self-confidence, not from magic.