The magic of belief

The magic of belief

Several streams of research in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy are converging on an uncomfortable truth: We’re more susceptible to magical thinking than we’d like to admit

How many words does it take to know you’re talking to an adult? In Peter Pan, J M Barrie needed just five: “Do you believe in fairies?”

Such belief requires magical thinking. Children suspend disbelief. They trust that events happen with no physical explanation, and equate an image of something with its existence. Magical thinking was Peter Pan’s key to eternal youth.

The ghouls and goblins that haunt All Hallows’ Eve also require people to take a leap of faith. Zombies wreak terror because children believe that the once-dead can reappear. At haunted houses, children dip their hands in buckets of cold noodles and spaghetti sauce. Even if you tell them what they touched, they know they felt guts. And children surmise that with the right Halloween make-up, costume and demeanour, they can frighten even the most sceptical adult.

We do grow up. We get jobs. Along the way, we lose our tendencies toward magical thinking.


Or at least we think we do. Several streams of research in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy are converging on an uncomfortable truth: We’re more susceptible to magical thinking than we’d like to admit. Consider the quandary facing college students in a clever demonstration of magical thinking. An experimenter hands you several darts and instructs you to throw them at different pictures. Some depict likable objects (for example, a baby), others are neutral (for example, a face-shaped circle).

Would your performance differ if you lobbed darts at a baby?

It would. Performance plummeted when people threw the darts at the baby. Laura A King, the psychologist at the University of Missouri who led this investigation, notes that research participants have a “baseless concern that a picture of an object shares an essential relationship with the object itself”.

Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that these studies demonstrate the magical law of similarity. Our minds subconsciously associate an image with an object. When something happens to the image, we experience a gut-level intuition that the object has changed as well.

Put yourself in the place of those poor college students. What would it feel like to take aim at the baby, seeking to impale it through its bright blue eye? We can skewer a picture of a baby face. We can stab a voodoo doll. Even as our conscious minds know we caused no harm, our primitive reaction thinks we tempted fate.

How can well-educated people struggle to throw a dart at a piece of paper? Some philosophers argue that magical thinking is, in some ways, adaptive. Tamar Gendler, a philosopher at Yale University, has coined the term “aliefs” to refer to innate and habitual reactions that may be at odds with our conscious beliefs — as when pictures of vipers, snarling dogs or crashing airplanes make our hearts race.

Aliefs motivate us to take or withhold action. You might enjoy sweets, but would you eat a chocolate bar shaped like faeces? Rozin and his colleagues showed that college students would not, though they knew it would not harm them. Our conscious beliefs tell us to shape up, use our wits and act rationally. But our subconscious aliefs set off deeply ingrained reactions that protect us from disease. The alief often wins.

We may have evolved to be this way — and that is not always a bad thing. We enter the world with innate knowledge that helped our evolutionary ancestors survive and reproduce. Babies know mother from stranger, scalding heat from soothing warmth. When we grow up, our minds cling to that knowledge and, without our awareness, use it to try to make sense of the world.

Can magical beliefs offer a window into the aggressive mind? My colleagues and I examined this idea in recent research published in the journal Aggressive Behavior. In one illustrative study, 529 married Americans were shown a picture of a doll and were told that it represented their spouse. They could insert as many pins into the doll as they wished, from zero to 51. Participants also reported how often they had perpetrated intimate partner violence, which included psychological aggression and physical assault.

Voodoo dolls can measure whether your romantic partner is “hangry” — a dangerous combination of hunger and anger. If we let our blood sugar drop, it becomes harder to put the brakes on aggressive urges. In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we showed that on days when their blood sugar dropped, married people stabbed the  doll with more pins.

Yes, children believe in magic because they don’t know any better. Peter Pan never grew up because he embraced magical beliefs. But such beliefs make for more than happy Halloweeners and children’s books. They give a glimpse into how the mind makes sense of the world.


We can’t overcome magical thinking. It is part of our evolved psychology. Our minds may fool us into thinking we are immune to magical thoughts. But we are only fooling ourselves. That’s the neatest trick of all.