Magical Thinking vs Scientific Thinking

Magical thinking is a comforting way of explaining the world. Scientific thinking is what moves the world forward.

Tessa Schlesinger
Aug 12, 2020 · 8 min read
Magical rituals are part of magical thinking. Pixabay Kellepics

A Definition of Magical Thinking

The term ‘magical thinking’ is used by both psychologists and anthropologists to define the thinking processes of those who attribute the cause of one event to another unrelated event. There is no causal link between the two events.

So, for instance, a tribe in the Amazon jungle might believe that the egg that was laid by the chicken was a result of the chicken chirping every day. They, therefore, faithfully, lay out fruit for the chicken-god every day so that the chickens will always chirp. If the chicken chirps, they believe it will lay an egg. This would be magical thinking — the erroneous belief that one event happens as a consequence of another event without there being a plausible and evidential link of causation.

Here’s another example — this time from real life.

In the 60s, it was thought that the drought in South Africa was caused by women wearing mini-skirts.

Many pastors were preaching this. Newspapers wrote about the outrage of the moral majority against women wearing dresses and skirts that were four inches above the knee. There were also endless prayers for rain.

Eventually, rain did come. Women, however, had not shorted their skirts. In fact, the micro-mini was born — that’s the one which ends right underneath your rear end.

Magical thinkers, however, were convinced that the rain was in response to their prayer. They were linking a natural event to an unrelated event. Prayer is a form of magical thinking.

A typical example of prayer being magical thinking is when someone has a severe infection and goes to hospital. The church is praying for healing and recovery. The patient receives antibiotics and a few days later is much better. Attributing the recovery of the patient to prayer and not to the medical procedures is magical thinking.

A Definition of Scientific Thinking

Scientific thinking connects events and consequences in a causal way for which there is evidence.

Did we miss the bus because we were rude to our neighbor or because the bus was early and had already departed by the time we arrived at the bus stop? The first is magical thinking while the second is scientific thinking.

Were we passed over for promotion (despite hard work and targets met) because we missed church on Sunday or because the boss-man preferred to elevate friend of his family? The first is magical thinking while the second is scientific thinking.

Did the car smash into us because the driver was high on weed or because we had cheated on the exam the day before? The first is scientific thinking while the second is magical thinking.

The way we put together information in our daily lives is either the result of scientific thinking (where there is evidence the proves how cause and effect is connected) or it’s magical thinking where unrelated events are connected to each other.

Scientific thinking involves evidential confirmation that the events are connected. An example would be that we always run out of money before month end. We attribute this to us earning insufficient money despite our income being above average. Scientific thinking would have us sit down for a few months, write down everything that we are spending, then examine where the money is going. This is the way we think scientifically.

That is, believing in lucky charms would increase participants’ “self-efficacy,” and it is this feeling of “I can do this,” not any magical properties of the object itself, that predict success. Source.

The Reasons for Magical Thinking

There are several reasons so many people indulge in magical thinking.

  1. It provides an explanation for tragic events. This explanation would include words like “It happened for a reason” or “It happened so that we could become spiritually stronger.” It enables people to cope with tragic situations.
  2. Magical thinking provides the courage and confidence to keep going when life gets tough. If we believe that the rabbit foot will enable us to win at the casino, we will keep on gambling despite our losses. By the same token, if we have a terrible boss and we believe that our prayers will eventually change him or make him go away, we will have the courage to continue to tolerate the boss’s behavior and so hold on to one’s job. Magical thinking enables us to persist in the face of difficulty. It provides the hope and courage to carry on.
  3. Magical thinking enables us to dream that our hopes will come to a pass, despite the fact that we don’t have the skills or resources to put those dreams into practice. The law of attraction is a well known method of magical thinking.
  4. Positive thinking is a form of magical thinking. The idea that if we only have thoughts that allow a positive outcome will blind us to the symptoms, clues, and evidence that a negative outcome is very much in the offing. This means that we won’t prepare adequately, and it can result in some very unpleasant outcomes.
Barbara Ehrenreich on the negatives of positive thinking. Own artwork.

The Downside of Magical Thinking

There are numerous negative to magical thinking.

  1. When people believe that they are protected against something like coronavirus because positive thinking or positive affirmations will ensure that they don’t get it, it’s far more likely that they will get it. In other words, magical thinking is dangerous to our health.
  2. When people collectively believe in something that is erroneous, it can result in that community’s or nation’s destruction. For instance, a community builds a town on a flood plain believing that their god will always protect them. Then the rain comes and a river floods somewhere, and the entire community is swept away. If people believe that they will be rescued from the consequences of climate change by the arrival of some god bent on rescuing the earth, nothing will be done. Again, magical thinking is dangerous to our health. Only because it’s a collective belief, it’s far more dangerous if it is just the idle belief of one person.
  3. People can spend a long time invested in something, believing totally that they will get the outcome. When the outcome doesn’t arrive after ten or twenty years, they sink into depression. Magical thinking means that people invest in the wrong things and they waste years of their life.
Positive thinking, a form of magical thinking, means we don’t prepare for negative events. Own artwork.

An estimated 90 percent of the American people believe in God, yet no evidence for God’s existence has ever been demonstrated scientifically — and further, some would argue, doesn’t need to be. This would mean that technically 90 percent of the American population is guilty of magical thinking. Source.

The problem with magical thinking is that if you believe that the lucky rabbit foot will save you from the tsunami or that prayer will prevent the disastrous effects of global warming, you endanger not only your own life but the lives of others as well. Magical thinking will probably destroy our world as prayer, spells, lucky dice, voodoo shamanism, etc., do not work. It is the great tragedy of the 21st century that when we have so much capacity and knowledge, some, through a lack of skills, knowledge, and resources are forced to resort to magical thinking.

It is the great tragedy of the 21st century that when we have so much capacity and knowledge, some, through a lack of skills, knowledge, and resources are forced to resort to magical thinking.

Why Scientific Thinking is the Better Option

The downside of scientific thinking is that there is no room for comforting ourselves with false notions. We need to be tough to face the facts. We need an inner honesty that stops us from lying to ourselves, and we need to be able to examine all things with one thought in mind, “Where’s the evidence?”

It’s the scientific thinkers of the world who move the world forward. It’s not possible to create something new without 100% factual information. Even in daily life, it’s the scientific thinkers who are more likely to be successful in their endeavors.

For instance, it would be impossible to create a raincoat without ensuring that the fabric was either water resistant or water proof. There would need to be evidence that the fabric would not allow water to leak through the fabric.

Likewise, if we wanted to ensure that a flashlight was working when we purchased it, we would first check. That is scientific thinking — always checking for evidence.

Whether we want to lead in a certain field or invent a product, we need to do so with scientific thinking. Scientific thinking will tell us which bridges are about to fall down and should be repaired. Scientific thinking will reveal the problem in a motor car and what is needed to fix it. Scientific thinking will tell us how to grow food using pink light and less water. Scientific thinking will create the algorithm that ensures the most popular stories are at the top of the web.

Throughout my life, I have worked as a casino dealer in new countries. It pays well, and it’s a fairly easy job to get when first starting out. Black Jack (21) is the only game in the casino where the odds are in the favor of the punter — if played scientifically. The reason card-counting is outlawed in America is precisely because the method is based on statistics — a scientific method. Lucky rabbit feet never worked. Scientific thinking does.

In America, 90% of the population are magical thinkers. (Own artwork)

So What’s the Score? Magical Thinking or Scientific Thinking?

Magical thinking is comfortable, makes us happy, gives us explanations even if they aren’t true, and is easy on the mind. It might lead us into wrong decisions at times, but more magical thinking will make those decisions livable. People who rely on magical thinking are often much happier than people who focus on scientific thinking.

Scientific thinking is definitely not for the weak-minded. It takes guts to look at the world and see the negatives, then attempt to fix them up with real tools. We cannot comfort ourselves with sweet words when we fail — nope, there wasn’t a spiritual reason for it all happening. There is an upside, however.

Scientific reasoning means that, in the medium to long term, we tend to get most things right. And we usually won’t be endangering our world. In fact, when we are using science correctly, there is every reason to believe that we can make our world a wonderful place for all.

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Tessa Schlesinger

Written by

Global citizen. Author. Thinker. Polymath. Climate change. Progressive. Loves photography, beauty, dancing, and believes benevolence is a survival mechanism.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Tessa Schlesinger

Written by

Global citizen. Author. Thinker. Polymath. Climate change. Progressive. Loves photography, beauty, dancing, and believes benevolence is a survival mechanism.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn