Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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Magical thinking is a funny term for a strange phenomenon. Broadly put it is the belief or expectation that our thoughts and actions will influence the future, others, or ourselves. I can only imagine it seems ridiculous for anyone reading this blog to consider the possibility of actually cursing someone, or placing a hex on their family. But I do imagine a certain percentage pray to a bearded man in sky to bestow good luck or good health on themselves or the people they know. Yet the middle group - the non-hexers and the non-prayers - are not exempt. Chances are you know it in some other form - willing the phone not to ring at 4:45 on a friday afternoon, 'jinxing' your own (or someone else's) good luck by making it the subject of conversation, or suggestion one ought to 'wish you luck' prior to some big event, and engaging in any other kind of superstitious behaviour.
The crazy part is that magical thinking can work. Sometimes. If you're so persuaded by the arguments of religion knowing that folk are praying for you can actually work. Of course, the magical thinking is on the part of the thinker/prayer; and the benefits associated with the knowledge that you're being prayed for are independent of the prayers themselves. No magic happens, but that doesn't mean an effect isn't observed. Consider a Voodoo doll - I can perform a frontal-voodoo-lobectomy onto a doll fashioned into an effigy of Sarah Palin - yet we will fail to observe a decline in her executive function*; yet if she became aware of my efforts, say, via a highly publicized and popular youtube video, she may very well believe my actions will influence her performance, may notice any little mental failing (say, stumbling over a few words) attribute it to the voodoo, fear it's succeeding, and let her anxiety cascade into a full blown melt-down - It's all in the mind.
The other crazy part is magical thinking can sometimes work in exactly the wrong way. Subbotsky (2009) examined the phenomenon of magical thinking in 'feed back' free kind of way. Subbotsky (2009) asked a group of 73 students to rate how satisfied they were with their life, and then offered observed the following conditions: One group (n=20) were offered nothing, one group (n=21) were offered a non-magical 'suggestion' that their life would improve, and a third group (n=20) was offered a 'magical suggestion' that their life would improve of which 12 declined the offer and formed the declined-magic group. Two weeks later the participants were brought back and completed life satisfaction scores. Naturally, investment / participation in the act is necessarily for this to work. Prayer works because godly folk are invested into the concept. Ordinary suggestion (Cheer up, things will get better) can 'work' because you want to cheer up, and you know someone is rooting for you to do so. ... and so, after two weeks, it was found that there was no significant change in life satisfaction in the No Suggestion and Ordinary Suggestion conditions; but participants in the Magical Suggestion condition significantly decreased in satisfaction, and those in the Declined condition significantly improved. All groups scored equivalent scores on an inventory of magical belief.
Subbotsky (2009) claims:
"In the ordinary- and no suggestion conditions, there was no change in participants’ follow-up assessments. Interestingly, in the ‘help declined’ group, participants’ estimates of satisfaction with their lives significantly increased in the second assessment. This is also in concordance with the ‘anxiety towards magic’ explanation: having declined magical help, participants experienced a feeling of relief from the danger of becoming indebted to ‘magical services’. This feeling of relief increased their feeling of satisfaction with their lives."
- Subbotsky (2009) [My emphasis added]
What!? Are you freaken' serious? Perhaps the second Life Satisfaction scores reflect their awareness that they were being measured on how satisfied they were with their lives, and how they alone were in control of that experience. Personally, if I was in that situation, I'd do it deliberately to skew the data. The N in the Subbotsky (2009) was so small this can't be rule out - it would only take one or two participants to create significance.
On the other hand, it was expected that the those that accepted magical help declined because they failed to observe any appreciable improvement, blamed the magic, felt bad about it (hopefully for being so stupid), and so felt less satisfied.
Subbotsky (2009) suggests that the effects above can be explained by a subconscious 're-adjustment' of 'real scores' of life satisfaction. Two suggestions are above to potentially explain the positive effects; but Subbotsky (2009) suggests improvements actually did occur in the accepted magic condition, but that participants under-estimated their effect and so manifested in declining scores... this is a terrible case of special pleading...
And so (oh my...) Subbotsky (2009) got people to wish for pleasant dreams in others. And you just know when dreams are involved that the science is hard. It was found that participants who refused such an offer experienced 'no difference' in their dreaming, but those who did accept it had more SCARY dreams.
"Altogether, the results of this experiment favour the assumption that while consciously, participants were hoping to benefit from the magic spell and see their target dreams, subconsciously they feared that the magic spell might indeed have an effect, and this fear may have been responsible for the participants’ seeing bad dreams."
- Subbotsky (2009)
Want an example of magical thinking? Look no further, Subbotsky.
Berenbaum, Boden & Baker (2009) looked (a little more rigorously) at what makes someone a magical thinker. Based on prior research the narrowed their study into looking at how aware one was of their own emotions (emotional salience), how much attention they paid to their own emotions, and the clarity by which they interpreted these emotions. They employed stimuli that were explicitly identical, but which differed on a simple variable. For instance, participants were asked to choose between sucking on a rubber ball or on a rubber 'vomit', or applying (explicitly chemically identical) creams to their face from tubs labeled 'moisturizer' or 'wart cream'. This, apparently, is an appropriate measure of magical thinking (that is, bestowing characteristics, via thought, into the world).
They found that a combination of all three predicted magical thinking, and that salience and attention (each independently) predicted a significant component of magical thinking. The three-way interaction was just shy of significance. Here it is, for those of you who can interpret such things...
Simple slopes (for the stats nerds) revealed that clarity of emotion varied as a function of attention and salience; Clarity played a bigger role in with high attention to emotions (this can be observed by comparing the 'top' line in the left and right boxes). Thus, it can be inferred that those who were aware of their emotions responded with greater 'magical thinking' towards objects that they could clearly somatically interpret. To make it simple, it's the old argument from faith - I know it's real because it feels true; be it god, vomit, or wearing your luckiest underwear.
But surely you and I, and all the intelligent and caring people we know wouldn't fall prey to thinking in such a way. Pronin, Rodriguez (two schmucks from Princeton) and Wegney and McCarthy (Harvard clowns) (2006) ran a series of studies that makes me proud to study psychology.
They brought in a participant and briefed them on Haitian Voodoo, and explained how their study related to the effects of Voodoo. Then the confederate (the intended target of the voodoo harm / magical thoughts) arrived:
"...the confederate arrived at the experiment 10 min late, thus keeping the participant and experimenter waiting... When the experimenter politely commented that she was really glad he made it, as she was beginning to worry, he muttered (with apparent condescension): “What’s the big deal?” He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase 'Stupid people shouldn’t breed', and he chewed gum with his mouth open. When the experimenter informed the participant and confederate that they had been given an extra copy of the consent form “to keep,” the confederate crumpled up his copy and tossed it toward the garbage can; he missed, shrugged, and left it on the floor. Finally, while he and the participant read the “Voodoo” Death article, he slowly rotated his pen on the tabletop, making a noise just noticeable enough to be grating."
- Pronin and friends (2006)
Manipulations checked confirmed that people didn't like the confederate.... (On average, people reported the maximum response of dislike towards them). There was also a neutral condition with a non-irritating confederate. So anyway, after a rigged draw the participant was assigned to be the witch-doctor and the confederate the victim. The victim answered that he experienced no ill-feeling or symptoms before the active part of the experiment. After the experiment he admitted to suffered from a slight headache.
Analysis revealed that participants who experienced negative thoughts towards the victim before the voodoo felt greater responsibility for the following headache compared to the neutral condition (M= 3.94 [out of 5.0] > M = 2.02). As expected, they didn't feel any guilt nor did they feel 'they had done a bad thing'. In an follow-up where participants were instructed explicitly to think bad thoughts about someone (and not put in a position to generate them based on their own opinions) similarly significant (though less dramatic) results were obtained, but this time people did feel more guilt about having caused the headache. That's awesome. This was a complete set up, obvious from the get-go, yet the manipulation still proved valid. In world free of ethics committees I'd run it a little different. A headache is ambiguous. It would be so much sweeter if the confederate collapsed and started foaming at the mouth and the campus medics had to come to the rescue. Now that'd be nice data.
So it seems well all do this to some degree. I, presumably like many of you, would consider myself above the final example. There's no way that I would feel even the least bit responsible for a headache in some drop-out, particularly since I was explicity 'doing voodoo'. But the next time you're you spill a touch of salt and you try to remember which shoulder to throw it over, the next time you double-and-triple check all the windows of the house before going to bed, the next time you forget your phone and know that you'll miss an important call and it just ruins your day, know that your engaging in magical thinking.
Subbotsky, E. (2009). Can magical intervention affect subjective experiences? Adults' reactions to magical suggestion British Journal of Psychology, 100 (3), 517-537 DOI: 10.1348/000712608X368270
Berenbaum, H., Boden, M., & Baker, J. (2009). Emotional salience, emotional awareness, peculiar beliefs, and magical thinking. Emotion, 9 (2), 197-205 DOI: 10.1037/a0015395
Pronin, E., Wegner, D., McCarthy, K., & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (2), 218-231 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
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Well, I have proof that magical thinking works
I read the post and magically a smile appeared in my face. Therefore you hexed me into becoming happier by using the well know ritual of typing on a keyboard very strange and magical signs.
If that is not magic, what can it be?
PS: What is the deal with the Princeton and Harvard bashing? LOL
haha, thanks, I'm glad you liked it. No, I wasn't trying to bash them, but I was hoping to stir a little controversy and was mocking those who might argue with the post...
i am donna pinto,from what I can read. It has been sad news and scam to everyone about spell casters or so. But to me they are so real cause one worked for me not quite two weeks. I traveled down to where his shrine his and we both did the ritual and sacrifice. I don't know about you but spell is real;love marriage,finance voodoo, get your ex back voodoo,love voodoo,lottery voodoo,weight loss voodoo,money voodoo, business voodoo,it's all he does. I used my money to purchase everything he used he never collected a dime from. He told me I can repay him anytime with anything from my heart. Now I don't know how to do that. If you can help or you need his help write him on email@example.com. Thank you.