Do people ever engage in “magical thinking” ?

Written by Pascal Boyer

Thursday, 19 May 2011 14:36

Would you enjoy your cocktail less, if it came in a glass labelled “vomit”?

One solid result of cognitive psychology, or so it would seem, is that most people, regardless of education, opinion or personality, can be induced to think in magical terms given the appropriate stimuli and conditions. People will be reluctant to don a sweater if told that it used to belong to Adolf Hitler. They resist drinking from a glass of water in which an experimenter has briefly dunked a plastic cockroach. There is a great variety of such effects, initially demonstrated by Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff and replicated by many others, including Paul Harris in developmental studies.

This was salutary news for cultural anthropologists, who suspected that there was something deeply wrong with the notion that magical thinking was a prerogative of the Other, either quasi-naked people with bones through their noses, or less exotic peasants and barbarians with “pre-logical” mentality. So – we now know that we all are that Other, so to speak.

But does magical thinking actually exist? Do the experiments actually show it in action?

All a matter of interpretation

The empirical literature is solid. The results are not at issue here. People can be induced to make “magical” choices, the phenomenon is stable, resists rationalization, is found in most human cultures and is not confined to early development. The notion of an exotic primitive mentality is dead and gone. No problem there.

The problem lies in the cognitive computational description of the processes engaged. Consider a paradigmatic case, that of people who prefer to drink from a glass A labeled ‘H2O’ than a glass B labelled ‘vomit’. They have seen that water from the same pitcher was poured into both glasses, in some versions of the protocol they even wrote the labels themselves and stuck them on the glasses… yet they feel more comfortable drinking from one than the other. In such studies, the participants readily accept that there is no real difference between the two glasses, and that the notion of a magical connection is indeed absurd. Yet their choices are predictably swayed towards A.

Hence the apparently uncontroversial conclusion that somehow they do hold the magical belief suggested by the experimental protocol, albeit in a tenuous way.

But who is doing the believing?

It seems to me that this last inference is based on a rather vague and probably misleading view of the cognitive processes engaged, notably that:

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