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Inventions, Innoventions, Ideas

What is 'Magical Thinking,' and can we live without it? Princeton Professor of Psychology Emily Pronin talks about the voodoo dolls in her office and explains to us why she can't disclose what she wishes for in life. She also considers the superstitions of psychology and the potential hazards and pleasures of performing magic tricks in front of young children. This interview was conducted via email by Peter Kurie.

What got you interested in "magical thinking?"

My research inspiration usually comes from everyday experience. In this case, it was really a pair of experiences that many others have since told me they also have had. One involves sitting in front of the television, watching your favorite sports team, and rooting for them to win—and then feeling some fear of leaving the room if they're on a winning a streak, or feeling bad about having left the room if you return only to find that streak reversed. In such cases, we seem to have the magical belief that we personally have influenced an outcome that we might rationally view as impossible for us to have influenced. Another everyday experience related to this occurs when we think bad thoughts about someone whom we are annoyed at, perhaps it might be a relative, a coworker, or even the shopkeeper who sells us our morning coffee, and then later feel guilty—as though we are personally responsible—when we learn that the person has fallen victim to a bad illness or harmful accident. Again, our rational side may tell us we are not responsible (and that such responsibility would be magical), but we may nevertheless feel that we are responsible.

How do you and your colleagues in psychology define "magical thinking?" How does your definition differ from others who address the topic?

I think we generally define it as the belief in forms of causation with no known physical basis. For example, if there is no known physical basis for how keeping a fluffy pink rabbit's foot in your pocket could bring you good luck, then a belief in its capacity to bring that luck might be considered magical thinking. Similarly, if there is no known physical basis for how my rooting for my favorite sports team from the comfort of my couch will influence their performance, then my believing in that influence would seem magical. In my own research, I'm not really interested in the debate about whether a particular form of causation is indeed magical or not; rather, I'm interested in illustrating and understanding cases in which people believe in forms of causation that they themselves would deem magical, were it not for the fact that circumstances have conspired to make them hold those beliefs.

Do we need more or less magical thinking in the world? Is there a good kind and bad kind of magical thinking? Can magical thinking be cultivated or done away with?

To extent that magical thinking gives us a sense of security or comfort in the face of circumstances that we cannot control, it could be a good thing. In fact, psychologists have found that mental health is associated with feeling a sense of personal control over one's life—even if that feeling is illusory or magical. Not all magical thinking involves a sense of personal control, though. One also might have the magical belief that everything that happens to oneself is controlled by an alien from outer-space. That belief might be unhealthy by taking away one's sense of control. Of course, magical thinking that gives us a false sense of control can also be bad for us. We might be disappointed when things don't go as we wished, if we view our wishes as having causal force—and we might even blame ourselves for those bad outcomes if we think that we could have controlled them. Magical thinking also could be harmful if it gives us a false sense of security that prevents us from taking actions that we should. Bringing a lucky rabbit's foot to your next job interview or standardized test is fine, but it's probably a good idea to prepare too.

Does science have any superstitions?

In psychology, we sometimes seem to impute magical properties to one specific value associated with our tests of statistical significance. We act as though we believe that if the probability value associated with retaining the null hypothesis is less than .05, then the effect we predicted is true, whereas if the probability value is greater than .05, it isn't. Sometimes, it seems as though we impute magical properties to the number .05. But, then again, it probably is a realistic convenience.

Is atheism just "depressive realism?"

That's a depressing question.

Is it dangerous to do magic tricks in front of young children?

I don't think it's dangerous—and it's probably more enjoyable than doing magic tricks in front of adults. When it comes to magical thinking, one of the biggest differences between kids and adults is that often kids really believe in magic and would admit to it, whereas adults might have the feeling that something magical has happened but not believe it at a rational level. I think that adults never fully outgrow the intuition, but they do outgrow the belief. As a result, the adult may show an initial look of surprise but is ultimately likely to report bored skepticism. Perhaps the individual who is most likely to enjoy a magic trick is the one who is old enough to be surprised by it but young enough not to disbelieve it. I suppose someone might be concerned that it might be dangerous because it would prevent children from learning about "reality." But, sadly, the process of discovering what we call "reality" is a difficult one to derail and a few magic tricks is unlikely to get in the way.  
What do you wish for?

If I told you, it wouldn't come true. That's part of the deal with how wishes work, didn't you know? I can tell you that the last time I wished for something was at eleven minutes past eleven o'clock last night. Someone once told me that 11:11 is the best time to make a wish. That kind of stuck with me. I find something informative about seeing what pops into my mind at those moments that I happen to look at the time and see that it is 11:11 and therefore my minute to come up with a wish before the moment passes. It's in those moments that I sometimes realize what is most important to me and what I most would like to see happen in my life, the lives of others, or the world in general.

Have you ever put a hex on someone? Have you ever been jinxed?

Never, but if I ever wanted to I would be well-equipped to do it because I have a collection of voodoo dolls right here in my office. In my initial experiments on magical thinking, I asked participants to place a voodoo hex on another student in order to test their belief in their own power to influence another person's health by thinking ill of that person. I still have the authentic New Orleans voodoo doll from that experiment, as well as a couple other dolls that people who know about my research have since bought me for fun. It's a little weird having them in my office alongside more typical experimental materials like file folders, tape recorders, and stopwatches, but there it is.