Home / Books / Book Reviews / Book Review: The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, by Matthew Hutson

Book Review: The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, by Matthew Hutson

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There would seem to be two salient points to be taken away from Matthew Hutson’s explanation of what he calls The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. First of all you, I, we all engage in some if not all aspects of magical thinking, even those of us who would scream the loudest, “No way!” Second, that it’s a good thing. Thus the tome’s subtitle: How Irrational Beliefs Keep us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.

Hutson begins by defining magical thinking. “There’s a world of the mind, defined by matter and deterministic forces. But we instinctively treat the mind as though it had physical properties. . . . We perceive mind and matter mingling together, working on the same wavelength.” Magical thinking is the “mingling of psychological concepts with physical ones.” The book that follows is essentially a collection of examples and anecdotes illustrating the author’s catalogue of seven different kinds of magical thinking. The illustrations are drawn from history and current events; they are drawn from scientific experimentation and a few are even culled from the world of fiction. Some of the examples are fascinating, some less so; some are convincing, some more of a stretch—but taken as a whole, Hutson makes his points forcefully and with wit.

On the most obvious level he talks about things like the tendency of pet owners to endow their pets with human qualities and the belief that there are objects that can bring us good fortune or bad luck. More controversial, especially to believers, would be the belief in a divine being that can exert control over human affairs or the ascription of emotions and feelings to the human fetus.

Somewhere between extremes, he suggests that the use of metaphoric comparisons like angry sea and raging storm indicate a kind of unconscious ingrained magical thinking. In almost all cases he points to psychological experimentation which supports not only the idea that such magical thinking exists, but that it can in fact have significant positive value. For example, he sites experiments that have demonstrated that people who attribute events to a divine agency are better able to deal with the evils that life throws their way.

Perhaps the most interesting reading in the book is the least scientifically convincing, and that is the anecdotal material. In one of the earlier chapters in which he discusses the idea that physical objects have essences that can be transferred, he talks about the effects that people felt when the piano on which the assassinated Beatle, John Lennon, composed “Imagine” toured the country after his death. People claimed that they could feel the man’s presence in the piano. There are the stories of hospital patients rehabbing with the aid of robotic pets and amputees who can still feel their lost limbs. There is the story of the construction worker who tried to jinx the Yankees by burying a David Ortiz jersey in the concrete of their new stadium. The book is filled with these kinds of stories to dine out on.

The uses of such magical thinking are varied. It can help us deal with our fears of the unknown. It can give us intimations of immortality and provide a rationale for altruistic actions. It can help us to come to terms with our bodies and their often disgusting functions. It can allow us to feel superior to fellow creatures. One only has to think back to the 19th century Industrial Revolution to see how magical thinking persuaded many to believe that products made by the hand of a man were superior to those made by the new machines, because a man could infuse his work with his passion for what he does, while a machine could only manage sterile perfection. Indeed imperfection, as in Ruskin’s praise for the great Gothic cathedrals, was an indication of a building’s greatness, because it was an indication of the human touch.

“Whether magic exists or not,” Hutson concludes, “magical thinking got us where we are, and for better or worse, it will take us where we’re going. We could no sooner escape it than we could escape consciousness. We think, therefore we think magically.”

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About Jack Goodstein

  • Dave

    Thanks for the review. As a creationist I am not surprised that Psychology would discover that the human mind was intended to believe in some things unseen or unprovable. It is my understanding of Jesus’ teachings that he calls his followers to exactly that. “In my Fathers house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you…” I have a theory that “truth receptors” are in each of us. As we live, learn and discover, we encounter truth. The receptors react in such a way that we “know” that we are engaging with truth. We can then accept or reject. Based on circumstances in our lives /minds we move forward with one choice or another.

  • I’m not surprised that a faithist was able to find meaning in a book review that wasn’t there, explicitly or implicitly. That’s a real example of magical thinking and why this kind of superstitious drivel must be resisted at every opportunity.

    I have a theory that Dave believes what he wants to and makes up absurd arguments like “truth receptors” to justify drivel to himself.

  • Dave

    By superstitious drivel, are you referring to the tenants of the book?

    I get why you would conclude as you do. Faith in a creator is not defensible scientifically. That’s my point – if it is true (we’ll only know absolutely in time), it would stand to reason that the created would have been designed to thrive believing it.

    I’m not looking for a fight. I can agree to disagree and still appreciate the beliefs of another. Thanks for the comment.

  • No, I’m referring to what you wrote, which was full of nonsense; and thanks for “tenants of the book”, that’s going to keep me laughing for days!

    Faith in a creator is not defensible at all as it requires belief in a theory for which there is zero supporting evidence. It is dangerous and stupid, that’s all.

    I’m sure you can agree to disagree, that’s typical of the faithist, but I don’t appreciate your beliefs at all. To be clear, monotheism, whether we are talking about Judaism, Christianity or Islam, is a sham.

  • Jordan Richardson

    What about polytheism?

  • What about it?

    It’s not so common or pervasive as montheism, whose proponents are more vocal and problematic, but as you might imagine, if it was it would also be a problem.

    People need to learn to accept responsibility for all they do and take control of their own lives, not palm responsibility off on some imaginary parental authority figure. In other words, we as a species need to grow up!

  • Jordan Richardson

    So it’s not so much the content of the beliefs that you’re against (although you are) but how vocal the various practitioners are. I was just asking because your beef seems mainly with monotheists, despite the third largest religion in the world being polytheistic and so on.

    Personally, I’ve not really encountered many “faithists” (still getting used to that term) that shirk responsibility or lack control of their own lives.

    I would agree we need to grow up, though, whatever that means.

  • I am against people palming off their personal responsibility for their actions on to mythical or fantastical creations, whatever they may be.

    I rarely encounter, online or offline, polytheists; as above, we see it is a monotheist that magically found some connection to their beliefs where there was none. Nor do polytheists come round to my house regularly trying to get me involved in their madness, although I wonder would that be true if I lived somewhere they were in a majority?

    I’m unaware of any polytheist wars going on in the world; I wonder if there are any?

    My view is that through their organised religions faithists obscure reality and true spirituality whilst also reducing people’s abilities to stand on their own two psychological and emotional feet.

    Fortunately we live in an era when religion is on the wane, although it doesn’t always seem that way on a day to day basis. I’m just trying to speed the process along!

  • The human organism does seem to have evolved to think magically, perhaps as a survival mechanism. For example, a tribe of aborigines in the Australian outback might have, over time, learned to stay away from a certain mountain because people who went there tended to get sick and die. They would have come to believe that the mountain was cursed: they would have had no way of knowing that it contained highly radioactive uranium ore.

    Which of course is no excuse for persisting in that mode of thought once we know better. If some shaman comes along and says he’s lifted the curse on the mountain, we shouldn’t be surprised if the locals who consequently go back there continue to die.

  • Igor

    Maybe Magical Thinking is the only alternative to suicidal depression.

    After all, viewing the human condition rationally IS depressing: we’re bound to die, and we are tortured by that knowledge. No animal or even a germ is so tortured.

    In those few moments when we are happy, we are certain that it will end, and we will once again have to start a struggle for happiness.

  • That example isn’t actually magical thinking is it, Doc?

    I thought magical thinking involved seeing what wasn’t there or associating bad thoughts with bad events, not coming to the right answer by or for the wrong reasons?

  • Chris, my scenario is offered as an illustration of how and why humans may have evolved to think magically.

    In this example, the aborigines were correct about the mountain being dangerous but wrong about the cause.

    However, suppose the group’s shaman then singles out a member of the tribe as cursed. People then start to notice that many of this person’s family members, or those who come into contact with them, get sick and/or get into accidents and/or die. Remembering what has been going on with the mountain, they believe in the curse.

    Humans are pattern-seeking animals, and it wouldn’t necessarily occur to the tribespeople that the hostile environment they live in takes a pretty high toll on them in any case. Given a compelling and apparently credible correlation, they would be inclined to blame the allegedly cursed individual rather than natural causes.

  • Igor (@ #10), the knowledge that life is finite doesn’t have to be depressing and in fact it can be immensely inspiring, especially if one can get over the irrational notion that one’s own personal existence as an organism is of any particular importance.

    The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was once asked to share the most astounding fact he knew about the universe. This was his answer.

  • Beautiful video, Dr.D.

    However, I think I do agree with much of what Igor said, only I wouldn’t really mind not going on…it’s going on that I find to be the problem.

    I am going to change Igor’s comment to make it my own:

    “Maybe Magical Thinking is the only alternative to suicidal depression. After all…the human condition…IS depressing: especially having to put up with other people!”

    Anyway, in another sense, I am not so sure that Igor’s observation is limited to being tortured over our own personal demise and would apply also to personal loss–which may be depressing rather than inspiring.

  • Igor

    @14-Cindy: that’s the Seinfeld, or Sartre “NO Exit”, answer. Good work.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Chris, you used the term “true spirituality.” I wonder if you could elaborate. What does that mean?

    In terms of polytheistic wars, offhand I can’t think of any. But I can’t think of any monotheistic wars happening now, either, so that hardly solves anything.

    Historically, Hinduism wasn’t exactly a religion of peace. And depending on how you view the caste system, it may well be one of the world’s most oppressive belief systems.

    More to my point, I wonder how you think your approach contributes to society’s “growing up.” How many people have you chased from their beliefs by belittling them?

  • Jordan, I don’t have any fully worked out set of ideas but I do find it interesting that all life is connected, that everything from planets to people are literally star dust or even odd scientific facts like if you change the energy level of sub-atomic particles, the energy level of all such particles everywhere in the universe all change at once.

    The level of unity such things display is pretty awe-inspiring and potentially worthy of some sort of reverence but it may well be a while before we know enough or understand enough for any deeper meaning to be apparent. It is all true though, unlike the theist stuff.

    I’ve no idea how my approach contributes to our growing up but it is obviously important, to me at least, to reject nonsense and lies. I don’t see why faithism should be given any more respect than astrology; we shouldn’t want people in positions of power or responsibility making decisions based on either of these unsubstantiated notions.

    Granted there is a lot of human history tied up in these creation myths but that is true of many things we have shed along the way as our intelligence and understanding evolves. I remain confident that evolutionary trend will continue far into the future, way beyond the scale of my own brief life.

  • The trend in our evolution currently seems to be heading us toward extinction. Or, as Lynn Margulis said,

    The species of some of the protoctists are 542 million years old. Mammal species have a mean lifetime in the fossil record of about 3 million years. And humans? You know what the index fossil of Homo sapiens in the recent fossil record is going to be? ?The squashed remains of the automobile. There will be a layer in the fossil record where you’re going to know people were here because of the automobiles. It will be a very thin layer.

  • Homo Sapiens is clearly a very young species that is still evolving, destination as yet unknown. It is surely far too soon to talk about its fossil record.

    As to the late Lynn Margulis, having just read up on her, I’m fairly sure she would much rather be remembered and/or quoted for her work on endosymbiosis, the Gaia hypothesis or possibly her still very controversial views on HIV…

  • Herr Profesor Igor

    I don’t think that the human species will last very long. We worship mass homicide and suicide, and truly, we use our opportunities very poorly.

    We just had a holiday of flamboyant Death Worship, and we seem determined to make sure that we have plenty to mourn and worship in the future.

  • I agree with your comments Igor. The war and prison industries are booming: people are “supporting our troops”, as they march off to other countries and slaughter strangers and get killed to “preserve our freedom”????

    (And people doubt we are socially indoctrinated by our institutions? How do people go out and get killed and allow their loved ones to get killed, and never even question whether the mantras about that are true?)

    Overfishing; coral reef death; unimaginable numbers and types of common animals being threatened with extinction or already extinct; radiation plumes washing up on the shores of Hawaii headed for California; children being sexually socialized to brutal, hateful, imagery; capitalist culture manipulating our deepest fears and inadequacies and developing new markets out of our (and our childrens’) most antisocial appetites; this is a culture where it is ordinary to become either callous and indifferent to the suffering of others or too tired or ineffectual to do anything about it.

    If you are not in the privileged group, whether that means you are elderly or frail or young or poor or on the receiving end of state sanctioned violence or in any kind of minority, your views will simply be marginalized and no one will care.

  • I personally don’t really care much if humans survive. I think we were a bad idea. I expect if evolution really is “progressive” it will eliminate us, that would be progress.

  • How much better we could be if we valued humility, service to others and especially those who are weak, respect for women and for all people and for our earth, concern for our fellow humans, sharing our knowledge our wealth our time and skills.

  • You’re certainly feeling pretty bleak in your #22, Cindy. I hope you will start to feel some degree of happiness before too long.

    As to your #23, there are many people who value those qualities; perhaps you are moving in some very negative or cynical circles?

  • roger nowosielski

    She has personal reasons, Chris. Her husband just passed away.

  • Indeed, Roger, that does make the muck inordinately muckier. I took it that Chris is expressing concern not harshness. Still, I am going for something other than my singularly bleak pov, here.

    I will try to think of a simple way to explain.

  • roger nowosielski

    Still, the values you espouse stand in no need of justification.