Magical thinking is the cognitive mistake of confusing correlation with causation. It is a very common mistake and is due to a lack of critical thinking. A person is particular prone to this mistake if he is incapable of thinking “statistically”. To think statistically one must be able to reason alternative scenarios leading to alternative explanations.

For instance, imagine that we have a digital clock. Now, thinking statistically, we realize that if we look at this clock, the first two digits can show 12 or 24 different values. The last two can show 60 different values. If, however, a mind does not have sufficient mental complexity(*) to “describe” this set of possibly outcomes (there are 12×60 or 720 of them), AND it attaches a special meaning to certain numbers, 11:11 is a popular one, it does not take much of a mental lapse to reach backwards and attach all sorts of meaning to events that coincided with 11:11 if one happened to see just that number instead of say 11:26, but otherwise had no causative connection at all.

(*) A good way to understand complexity is in terms of itself. A system is more complex if it can contain another system. For instance, if A can understand B, but B can not understand A, A is more complex than B.

“Sympathetic magic” is the kind of magic that says that “likes” attract. This can be cast into all sorts of pseudo-scientific language such as Vibrations, Cycles and Resonances, or even Quantum Resonances although they (of course) have absolutely nothing to do with physics. [Someday I would like to learn why such terms are always capitalized in magical thinking literature?!].

What this means effectively is the belief that if you, say, put a picture of a slim person on the fridge, you will lose weight; or if you put a picture of a car, you will get a car. “Attract” a car into your life so to speak.

Sympathetic magic can be materialistic as described above, but it can also be mental. A personal that believes in “mental sympathetic magic” believes that by thinking a lot about being a millionaire, one will attract money; by thinking about losing weight, one will lose weight, and by thinking “Positive” thoughts, one will lead a positive life.

This kind of belief would not be so popular if it was not epistemologically, that is, functionally true to some extent. However, I think we can reasonably say that merely thinking about something is going to obtain absolutely nothing. There is simply no reality-based causation.

What does cause results is a change of behavior; and it so often happens that thoughts result in such change. The magical thinker simply misses this causation though. This lack of observation may be acceptable, but a major problem with positive thinking or mental sympathetic magic in general is:

1) In statistical terms, very many explanations are simply discarded. This means that a positive thinker is simply mentally incapable of seeing negative events, like 9/11, the failure of Iraq, or the banking crisis: all things that were foreseen by many “negative” or should I rather than more realistic thinkers, but which the optimists were mentally blind to.

2) There is a lacking sense of realism. Magical thinking is not really thinking but more a kind of haphazard intuition. Never put an optimist in charge of critical machinery, never, ever, never!

The main problem I see though is the utterly close-minded and fundamentalist attitude that many believers of the church of positive thinking subscribe to: Specifically, the belief is very strong that attitude explains all. Hence, if you fail, it is simply because you failed to be sufficiently positive. You were not sufficiently righteous. The belief that negative or realistic people (nonbelievers?) must be shunned, avoided and ostracized from one’s life as if they were somehow dangerous to one’s faith. In fact, this very attitude suggests that the fundamentalists do realize there is a weakness in their position. They simply deal with it in the simplest possible way, namely, by sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting “happy”, “happy”, “happy”.

Oh the humanity!

There is no doubt in my mind that the better option is to acknowledge both positive thoughts and negative thoughts. They are, after all, simply thoughts. The same thing goes with feelings which are, after all, just another kind of thoughts [of a different part of the brain system]. Excluding some thoughts whether it happens through self-delusion or through medication [Americans love psychotropic drugs] is simply not the best way to proceed because it exclude parts of reality. Are positive thinking people simply unable to deal with reality and as a consequence they have voluntarily created this bubble world where all that matters are perceptions (illusions, delusions, schmolusions)? To some extent, I think this actually is the case. Or maybe it is indeed just an inability to think critically.

In either case it is a problem since the last thing a complex world needs are people who only see half of it or refuse to deal with it.

You can read more about this in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-sided. I have always considered the concept of positive thinking somewhat fishy but I had not realized just how much it has in common with fundamentalist (here in the narrow-minded sense) religions until reading that book. The main reason for this is that “positive thinking” like “extrovertism” or “postmodernism” has become so prevailing so as to co-opt the language in an almost Orwellian sense so as to make any thinking about different positions sound negative in nature. Indeed I just demonstrated that very fact by my choice of the words positive and negative above.

Originally posted 2010-02-05 01:39:10.