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An exploration of the rational benefits of irrational thinking

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

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.”

About Jack Goodstein

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