What is magical thinking and how can it affect us?

Magical thinking leads us to believe that our ideas or thoughts are capable of influencing reality, without there being evidence for it. We analyze it.

Last update: December 29, 2021

Thought is not one, but different ways of approaching a problem or analyzing a situation coexist. At times we will be able to apply systems thinking, capable of thinking about all the factors and the relationship between them. Whereas with certain issues, the only possible answer will be magical thinking.

Magical? Yes, although its name refers more than anything to the improbability of certain ideas, even if we take them for certain. For example, magical thinking appears at different times of the day, such as when we think a job interview went wrong just because we crossed under a ladder. Superstition and some rituals go hand in hand with this type of thinking.

What is magical thinking and how is it expressed?

Magical thinking is characterized by believe that one’s own ideas or thoughts are capable, by themselves, of influencing reality. For example, when faced with a complicated situation, believing that things will solve themselves, because I think so.

Magical thinking usually works by the proximity and association of the facts:

  • Since I wished my father would lose his job to spend more time with him, he was fired.
  • Since I wore a purple T-shirt before an exam and it went well, I passed thanks to the T-shirt.

To understand it better, we can think of a very typical case at a certain childhood stage: a child feels bad because he believes that his companion hurt himself playing just because he wanted him to hurt himself. Children (ages 2 to 7) often assume that their mind has the ability to cause certain effects.

In this sense, it is possible to observe how that relationship that is established does not respond to evidence or logic, but quite the opposite. It is an illogical, hazardous and irrational relationship. Causes and connections are established as if they were true or probable, even when one thing does not connect with the other.

Magical thinking can be negative if we always believe that certain bad things happen to us out of superstition.


Characteristics of magical thinking

Some of the characteristics of magical thinking are the following:

  • The filter through which sift all the information it has no logic.
  • It is more common in childhood, although it also persists in adulthood. Especially on issues related to superstition, rituals and religion.
  • Having certain thoughts, beliefs or desires are sufficient and sufficient to explain or determine that some episodes are true.

How can it affect us?

Magical thinking has both positive and negative effects. Regarding the former, some considerations are the following:

  • It usually works as a pain relieving in certain circumstances. For example, a person who expresses that he feels bad, that he has pain and that this causes him a lot of anguish. The doctor gives him a medication to take and the pain goes away, but in reality he is not giving him anything, only placebo. In other words, magical thinking can be calming and helpful in reducing anxiety.
  • Although false, provide a sense of control. It is useful in situations where we cannot intervene.
  • Brings optimism which, in turn, strengthens self-confidence.

However, magical thinking can also negatively impact our lives:

  • It can lead us to overconfidence, paralyzing our action. For example, when faced with a situation of illness or conflict, thinking that with our simple desire or will we are capable of healing or fixing a conflict. In this sense, it could lead us away from finding real solutions.
  • Many times, it can have a guilty effect. A phrase that explains it very well is the one that deals with “What you think, you attract“. In this case, many people take responsibility for certain events just because they were thinking about it.
  • It leads to other cognitive biases, which make us interpret reality in one direction only, closing reading possibilities. It works as a verdict, as a determining factor.
Magical thinking can paralyze us, as we assume that things will magically improve, so we don’t act and wait.


Ensure that magical thinking does not inhibit action

Magical thinking can bring us benefits, but it can also be a hindrance. Hence it is important that we can identify when we are governed by it and if it is convenient to do so.

Thus, a good recommendation would be to ask yourself the following question: What evidence do I have that this is so? The next thing to do is ask whether such a thing is really likely to happen for that reason. In this way, we stop to be a little more critical, to analyze before we get carried away.

The downside of getting caught up in magical thinking is that it could prevent us from having an alternative reading of situations in order to find more constructive solutions. If this way of facing reality inhibits us, then we have to change it.

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