Humans are uniquely gifted with the extraordinary capability to think rationally and objectively, and we typically perceive ourselves as functioning as logical, reasoned and objective beings. In this perception, we are probably not thinking with full clarity, as we all have moments where emotions and other factors get in the way. More fundamentally, our cognition and our sense of being is replete with many non-rational processes and modes of perception and thought. While capable of being logical and objective, we are, after all, only human, with lots of not-so-rational elements in our makeup.
Magical thinking is just one of the non-rational types of cognition that we regularly experience and, in one form or another, these processes are remarkably common. In some circumstances they can be adaptive and protective. Logic and rationality are immensely important, but intuitive and emotional processing are also critical assets in our capacity for creativity and in maintaining our well-being.
This week’s newsletter will discuss both the normative as well as some pathological aspects of non-logical human cognition as appreciation of these is can better inform our efforts in helping our patients maintain or regain their emotional well-being.
Formally defined, magical thinking entails the attribution of causality between events when none is factually present. It is manifest in a wide variety of situations but, at root, it is the product of various associative and inductive cognitive and emotional processes that are wired into us. Magical thinking happens when the temporal contiguity of events or the resemblances between things or situations lead to our seeing (and believing) them to be connected by some cause or effect. (e.g., “Every time my boss wears a dark tie, I know it’ll be a tough day”).
In the context of normative behavioral health, non-rational beliefs and cognitive processes such as magical thinking can be important vehicles for dealing with stress and achieving emotional balance in the face of life’s challenges. Many of our social, cultural, religious and even our occupational routines are without an objective “evidence-base”, yet our commitment to and belief in them allows us to cope and give meaning to our experiences in a world of many uncertainties.
Clinically, magical thinking is associated with situations of trauma, when uncertainty and danger override our capacity to access logic and to adapt and respond with equanimity. Though technically a disorder of thought content, it is a mechanism by which individuals can restore a temporary sense of control over troubling circumstances of grief and loss.
In a pathological context, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder adopt (or default to) modes of magical thinking and ritualistic behaviors in their maladaptive efforts to contain their internal states of anxiety. (e.g., “If I wash my hands and check the door one more time, all will be well.”). More ominously and with a more complex set of contributory factors, individuals with schizophrenic disorders also exhibit disordered thought processes, elements of which may incorporate magical thinking with attribution of causality between events when none is present. (e.g., “The policeman on the corner must be checking on my whereabouts”)
In a positive context, magical thinking and other non-rational believe-based associations about seeing a doctor, going to a healer, or getting a prescription, may be cognitive underpinnings for the placebo effect. (e.g., “She is such a nice doctor, I’m sure the new medicine will help”)
Sigmund Freud and others in the psychoanalytic movement recognized the developmental progression from magical to more logical rational thinking, noting that children from toddlerhood through their early school age years typically conjoin their affective and thought processes with external realities, (e.g., “It is raining because I am sad.”).
Jean Piaget, noted that grieving children often experience guilt about a major loss, as they may associate the trauma with conflictual behaviors or thoughts that were prominent in their lives at the time. Still in the preoperational stage of cognitive development, these children have yet to develop a logical mind-set and may strongly believe that their thoughts were causative factors for their loss. (e.g., “My anger made mom sick and die”). If not offered understanding and corrective explanation, these children may develop longstanding issues with self-esteem and psychological health.
Similarly, even otherwise healthy adults faced with grievous loss, may experience regression in their cognitive, emotional and physical functioning. The author Joan Didion’s description of her response to multiple losses and trauma in her book, “The Year of Magical Thinking”, is a poignant recitation of such an occurrence and it highlights the importance and rationale for providing psychological supports and interventions for those experiencing loss and grief.
Referring individuals in duress to supports and psychotherapy is a “logical” intervention that may lead to healing that can seem “magical”.
Piaget, Jean (1929). The Child’s Conception of the World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Sadock, B. J.; Sadock, V. A.; Ruiz, P. (2017). Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (10th ed.). Wolters Kluwer.
Didion, Joan; The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005, Knopf.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_thinking; accessed 2/6/22.