Why is magical thinking so widespread

Magical Thinking - Meaning and Application

Magical thinking describes, firstly, a state of mind in which objects are assigned a special meaning that (scientifically speaking) does not exist. Such imaginations construct causes and effects between things and events that objectively do not exist. Secondly, it means a phase in childhood between 2 and 5 years in which children consider relationships of all kinds between things, plants, animals and people to be possible and do not separate between inner experience and the outside world.

In the first variant, this way of thinking is shown in the West in the belief in the supernatural, astrology, dowsing, esotericism or reading coffee grounds; in traditional cultures, on the other hand, as a holistic approach that sees all beings, things and phenomena magically interwoven and this combination of fragments of the sensual Perception and historical experience to create a system.

Ever since the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, this “wild thinking” is no longer regarded as pathological in ethnology, but as a meaningful structure for organizing human societies. The “wild thinking” turns into philosophy, myth and the “great narrative” that people needed to handle the chaos of experience with the environment as a culture.

Thinking in contexts, which deduces causal relationships in the outside world from subjective perceptions, belongs to the system of "quick thinking" in associations and is normal for everyone in order to cope with everyday life: When our new boss is Christian's first name and we are with them If a Christian had bad experiences, it plays into our perception, although there is no objective connection.

Associative thinking goes back to evolutionary adaptation and thus to behavioral patterns that preceded slow thinking, which abstracts.

Mentally Ill and Traditional Cultures

This thinking is considered pathological when people can no longer distinguish between their subjective sensations and the outside world. We call this breakdown between inner and outer experience psychosis. Traumatized, bipolar, borderline patients and those suffering from schizophrenia belong to the mentally disturbed in whom the separation between subjective perception and external reality dissolves.

Mentally ill and mentally healthy “primitive peoples” are only in opposition if we exclude mental disorders as something abnormal from the “healthy brain”. But that's not how the brain works: The constructions of reality of mentally disturbed people are rather the attempt of the organism to function - for example, Korsakov patients who suffer from amnesia because alcohol has destroyed parts of the brain, fill the missing memories with imagination -Constructions. The brain cannot stand emptiness.

Magical thinking in children

Children live in the magical phase from around the age of two to five. During this time giants, witches or Santa Claus are as real to them as cars or people.

The children already recognize real things and can name them; they know what a house is, a dog, or a closet. However, everything the child imagines is just as real, and it develops explanations for events in the environment: For example, it comes to the conclusion that it is raining because a man is sitting in the sky with a watering can.

Adult stories become reality for children. When Uncle Bernd says that a green spider like a green tomato is not yet ripe, then that's true. Metaphors become an immediate reality. “This is where the dog is buried”, or “There is a fair in heaven”, toddlers imagine themselves exactly as the words say. At this age there is no point in explaining to the child logically why certain things are not possible.

Not only beautiful ideas become reality, the magical fears are even more serious. There's a monster lurking under the bed or a robber hiding in the closet. In addition, there is the “invisible friend” who stands by the child in such fearful situations.

Parents should take these fears and coping with fear seriously. First of all, explaining to the children that these ideas are irrational, the little ones do not understand and, strictly speaking, is also wrong. It is not about irrationality in the sense of spinning, but an evolutionary behavior - and this behavior makes sense.

A hyena in the dark corner (under the bed) or a leopard on the lookout (in the closet), a hostile person who kidnaps defenseless children (robbers) were very real threats to early humans, and children whose genetic make-up were such threats would not have recognized, would not have grown old.

So when the child puts food for the invisible friend in front of the door, talks to his teddy bear or the parents have to look in the dresser to see if a troll is hiding there, there is no need to worry. Some parents fear that their child will develop a mental disorder. This fear is mostly unfounded.

It is not the fantasies that are a reason to worry, but the extent of the fear. Does the child no longer dare to go to kindergarten? Are the evil spirits always and everywhere? Are you missing a positive opponent?

As a rule, there is also no problem in supporting the child in their fantasies, no matter how grandiose they are. At the age of six or seven, schoolchildren discuss whether there is Santa Claus; So the all-encompassing fantasies shift by themselves through realistic explanations. For example, children who still believe in Santa Claus at the age of six develop theories of how Santa Claus can make all children happy; the gifts are not just there, but elves make them in a huge factory, etc.

Children's imaginations are a great treasure trove, and some successful fantasy writers got a substantial boost from developing their plots together with children. Parents are well advised to accompany the child, even if they can hardly imagine that little males with wings frolic in the bird feeder.

You should always take the child's fears seriously. The child does not accept that the robber does not exist in the closet. Rather, these associations are a biologically meaningful appeal to parents to ensure security. So instead of explaining that the monsters are fantasies, prudent parents look in the closet and show that the monster is not there.

The parents can also work with the child to find solutions to overcome the fear: “I'll watch out if a monster comes” or “We'll leave your door open, and if there is a monster, you come to us”. It is good if the parents tell the child about situations in which they were afraid themselves and what they then did.

Two systems of thought

The psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann examined two human thought systems in a long-term study. Accordingly, we have slow and fast thinking - intuitive and rational.

According to Kahnemann, intuitive thinking is far more powerful than rational thinking for our everyday decisions. We can only control our thinking to a very limited extent.

Cognitive distortions, caused by feelings and intuitions, usually push back rationality - even with people who assume the opposite of themselves, such as scientists. Managers bought shares in Ford “because they know how to build a car”.

Kahnemann writes: "We are often convinced of their correctness (intuitive beliefs and preferences) even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely than we to recognize our mistakes."

According to Kahnemann, the unconscious system works automatically, it is based on stored experience and develops related stories from it. The results from these "quick connections" are received by consciousness and thus by the rational thinking with which we check, organize and analyze.

The abstract thinking that creates the complex calculations and hypotheses that we accept to be right or wrong not only takes a long time - it also consumes resources. It is too exhausting for the organism to be in constant use.

In everyday life we ​​therefore usually think and act with system 1. We replace difficult questions with questions that we subjectively like. Because of that, however, many of our decisions are wrong, because our quick thinking sorts out what “fits our stuff” and not what is objectively correct. The more we are under stress, the more we choose the quick and easy way.

Associative thinking can have fatal consequences. In one experiment, for example, judges sentenced a shoplifter to a higher sentence after rolling a higher number. What's more, judges actually released many more people on parole, not in experiments, if they worked on the case early in the morning or after the lunch break. On the other hand, they refused most parole applications if they had worked several hours beforehand. According to Kahnemann, it is not a matter of sloppiness, but a normal reaction of the organism. Thinking slowly takes up mental energy, and at some point the brain automatically switches down to a "low energy mode". Kahnemann explains this phenomenon with mental fatigue. He says that the work of judges is primarily about analytical thinking. But this drains the mental energy reserves.

According to Kahnemann, intuitive thinking cannot be switched off because it is innate. We easily confuse our impressions, acquired sympathies and aversions with slowly thought-out decisions. However, according to Kahnemann, this slow system has to be switched on at will, and that is almost always inconvenient.

Even more: as long as everything is going well, the rational system picks up the automatic intuitions unchecked and transforms them into convictions. The rational system only becomes active “by itself” in the event of cognitive dissonance, that is, in the event of incidents that violate what the fast system considers plausible, for example a talking cat.


Psychologists such as Seymour Epstein and Jonathan Evans see an evolutionary development in the systems of thought described by Kahnemann: Intuitive thinking is an old system of evolution, like many other vertebrates, while the analytical system is a new adaptation of humans in terms of geological history.

This old system of experience can easily be equated with magical thinking. It puts simultaneous perceptions into context and constructs a causal chain between event and experience. That can be true objectively, but it doesn't have to be.

The “old way of thinking” does not make hypotheses that it tests and refutes if they are wrong, but sees patterns in the environment behind which there are intentions. For the natives of Papua New Guinea, almost every illness is the result of an evil spell. It cannot be due to “stupidity”. The selection pressure with regard to cleverness was probably greater among the Papuans, who were constantly expecting the attack of a hostile clan and had to watch out for natural dangers such as crocodiles, falling trees or parasites, than in modern societies.

What appears to be pure superstition enabled us to survive in the natural wilderness and is reflected in the fear fantasies of children: Anyone who would have long analyzed in the savannah of Africa whether a shadow in the bush came from a leopard, the incidence of sunlight or a stone, would hardly have survived if it had been a leopard.

Evolutionary biologist Kevin Foster used a mathematical model to show that this intuitive way of thinking and acting offered an advantage in evolution, regardless of whether the conclusion was objectively wrong.

Esotericism from exhaustion

Esoteric teachings are more widespread among academics than among the “less educated” - whether it be dowsing rods, “alternative explanations of the world”, the ineffable Tao, the god-king Dalai Lama, or a square between the planets Pluto and Mars at birth as an explanation for self-destruction.

A successful psychiatrist who has been lying on the couch for years because of depression and has painfully found in practice that mental disorders can only be cured to a limited extent, suddenly spends his money on "seminars" in which gurus say that everything what you wish for will come true if you only believe in it. "Enlightened" the doctor is now gambling away his reputation because he thinks that he can remedy all diseases with knocking on parts of the body.

The function of the two systems of thought makes such behavior appear logical. Analytical work as a psychiatrist over many years costs an enormous amount of mental energy and consumes resources. The suggestions of innate quick thinking to make sense instead of continuing the tiresome work, the results of which are of little success, are now growing stronger.

Fast thinking now promises apparent solutions, good luck with little effort, if the person concerned only says goodbye to slow thinking. The lure of intuitive snap decisions is consequently even greater for intellectual workers, doctors, psychiatrists and scientists than for people who pursue less intellectually demanding activities.

Magical Thinking Versus Mental Disorders

It becomes dangerous when alternative practitioners, doctors and therapists who trust quick thinking approach people with mental disorders, whose symptoms include magical constructions, and for whom these associations are not a help in life, but cause suffering. It even becomes criminal when therapists trigger unnecessary fears in those affected.

Compulsive acts show a magical pattern: those affected repeatedly perform actions without objective meaning according to a strict ritual. They subconsciously try to undo fantasies, impulses or actions that they consider to be guilty.

To put it simply: Those who constantly wash their hands and suffer from an authoritarian upbringing wash themselves away from the fear of being punished for “sins”.

Anyone treating obsessive-compulsive disorder should first separate the patient's thoughts and reality. Obsessive-compulsive disorders usually react with relief when they understand that their thinking alone has no consequences.

Magical thinking is typical of various forms of schizophrenia. Those affected believe that thoughts are whispered or taken away from them by foreign powers. These thoughts can expand in the schizophrenic perception, infect other people or penetrate outside without the affected person being able to control them.

Schizophrenics develop entire delusional systems in which witches, black magicians or evil spirits influence and persecute them. The work of these spirits explains to the schizophrenics their own peculiar actions: newly constructed words, silence, dry choking or freezing.

What does ethnology say?

Magical thinking differs from modern scientific thinking in that it explains the world through an all-encompassing workings of spirits, gods and demons.

Claude Lévi-Strauss saw essentially the same principle: science and traditional systems try to organize the world according to a universal procedure.

In “wild thinking”, too, opposites formed the pattern of categories: Much-little, animal-human, bad spirit-good spirit. The archaic worldviews can be easily translated into any modern language.

The terms are different, but the structure is the same. In computer technology in particular, the structural logic of traditional cultures is evident today.

The difference, however, lies in the fact that scientific thinking is based on empiricism and deduces the whole from the individual. Magical thinking, on the other hand, has no direct relationship with practice, it does not look for evidence, but rather builds a harmony of the cosmos.

Magical thinking combines the things and beings of the environment according to associative patterns that are easy to think. In natural religions it is by no means unsystematic, but classified - such as the taxonomy in modern biology. However, this order would arise in ever new combinations and precisely not as a result of abstraction - perhaps comparable to the clusters that writers form when they design their story.

For example, a hole is created in a body when a person throws a spear into it. In the dream time of the Aborigines, an impressive hole in a rock has its origin in the fact that an ancestor threw a spear into a kangaroo there. Or: The eagle lands on earth and flies in the air, so it connects heaven and earth.Or: the bear has a heavy bone structure and is difficult to wound. So bear spirit medicine helps heal broken bones.

Magical thinking, not only in natural religions, seeks wholeness, scientific thinking the truth. Science tries to explain a single event, magical thinking seeks the place of the event in the holistic context. Magical thinking sees the indivisible whole as reality, science the divisible things. Magical thinking sees a reality behind things, scientific thinking the reality in things. In science the universe is the sum of all things - in magical thinking, things are an expression of the cosmos.

Magical thinking trusts tradition, ancestors, and tradition. Scientific thinking checks theories and traditions for their validity. Magical thinking sees all experiences as equivalent, scientific thinking analyzes these experiences. Magical thinking constructs a context that corresponds to one's own values; science "constructs" real connections after experiments.

According to Levi-Strauss, “wild thinking” is even superior to scientific thinking in terms of connecting people to their environment. It connects cultural relationships with animals, plants, planets, water and stones. People in cultures who practice this "wild thinking" would know that they are part of a cosmic order.

Magical thinking in therapy

Patients can sometimes use this kind of thinking in therapy when it creates order in a chaos inside and outside of their psyche. However, it must never be about tricking him into portraying these psychosocial constructions as external reality.

Fairy tales and myths are ideal for creating a narrative structure for people with fragmented memories, traumatizations and chaos when shaping their own lives, from which they can regain confidence in themselves.

Therapeutic writing and therapeutic painting are ideal for this. The therapist establishes the connection to analytical thinking. He arranges the associations together with the patient and discusses with them what meaning they have. Magical thinking with professional guidance can promote healing processes. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

http://www.latein Amerika-studien.at/content/kultur/mythen/mythen-423.html

Book tips:
Daniel Kahneman: Fast thinking, slow thinking. From d. americ. Engl. V ,. Thorsten Schmidt. Publisher: Siedler. ISBN: 9783886808861

Author and source information

Important NOTE:
This article is for general guidance only and is not intended to be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. He can not substitute a visit at the doctor.