Couple of good articles on magical thinking.

There’s a fascinating article over at Psychology Today’s blogs on how people who feel powerless or that they lack control tend to see patterns in chaos and formulate conspiracy theories:

The paper, by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern, ties together leads from several areas of research into a tight argument: lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. According to Whitson, “the main contribution of [the six new studies reported in the paper] is that they connect a lot of different things that were previously thought of as separate and reveal that underneath, the same visceral need for control is affecting all of them.”

The first study showed that when people receive arbitrary feedback on a cognitive task—denying them of the ability to make sense of the task’s requirements—they score higher on the Personal Need for Structure Scale by saying, for example, that they find routines enjoyable. In the second study, subjects who received random feedback saw more images in random visual noise (think TV static) than did other subjects.

For the third experiment, subjects recalled an experience when they either lacked control or had control. Then they read scenarios describing potentially meaningful coincidences—in one, a man stomps his feet three times before a meeting and subsequently has his proposal approved. The people who recalled powerlessness saw stronger connections between behaviors and outcomes in the scenarios, and also said they were more likely to try similar stunts in the future.

Go read the whole thing for the fourth through six experiments. It’s a short article, but the implications are interesting. Matthew Hutson has also written his own article on magical thinking that’s worth a read. It opens with an anecdote about John Lennon’s piano and how it affected people when it went on tour after his death:

On this journey, Lennon assumed the form of a piano, specifically the one on which he composed Imagine. “It gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years,” says Caroline True, the tour director and a colleague of the Steinway’s current owner, singer George Michael. Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone. According to Libra LaGrone, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, “It was like sleeping in your grandpa’s sweatshirt at night. Familiar, beautiful, and personal.”

“I never went anywhere saying this is a magic piano and it’s going to cure your ills,” True says. But she consistently saw even the most skeptical hearts warm to the experience—even in Virginia, where the piano landed just a month after the massacre. “I had no idea an inanimate object could give people so much.”

Maybe you’re not a Beatles fan. Maybe you even hate peace and love. But you are wired to find meaning in the world, a predisposition that leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think. Even if you’re a hard-core atheist who walks under ladders and pronounces “new age” like “sewage,” you believe in magic.

Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns—night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.

It is important that we recognize the truth of our tendency to engage in magical thinking especially when evaluating claims and propositions we’re presented with on a daily basis. The hardest part of being a good skeptic is maintaining that balance between rejecting everything out of hand and tempering our natural inclination toward magical thinking. Pretending we don’t have that tendency is the wrong approach to take.

I engage in a little magical thinking every time I buy a lottery ticket, but my indulgence is relatively harmless as I don’t play often and I rarely spend more than $2 when I do. Some folks give in to that same magical thinking, though, and spend hundreds of dollars on tickets chasing the elusive dream of easy riches. The big difference between us, other than the money being wasted, is that I recognize the magical thinking I’m engaging in and the poor fellow dumping hundreds of dollars into the lottery isn’t.

It’s not easy to resist that line of thought when there’s an outcome you’d really like to see. Which is why folks who claim religion is all about faith in the unseeable still go nuts whenever a crude image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary shows up in some random inanimate object. It’s proof, however flimsy, that the thing the desire most to be real actually is real. I try to maintain some amount of sympathy for folks who are engaging in magical thinking because it’s something we all do from time to time. If we’re lucky we will have developed the skill needed to recognize it when we’re engaging in it.

Another interesting part of the article is the very end in which they say that some magical thinking is beneficial so long as you don’t take it too far:

Magical Thinking: Positive psychology or psychosis lite?

Magical thinking can be plotted on a spectrum, with skeptics at one end and schizophrenics at the other. People who endorse magical ideation, ranging from the innocuous (occasional fear of stepping on sidewalk cracks) to the outlandish (TV broadcasters know when you’re watching), are more likely to have psychosis or develop it later in their lives. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder also exhibit elevated levels of paranoia, perceptual disturbances, and magical thinking, particularly “thought-action fusion,” the belief that your negative thoughts can cause harm. These people are compelled to carry out repetitive tasks to counteract their intrusive thoughts about unlocked doors or loved ones getting cancer. But more magical thinking does not necessarily mean more emotional problems—what counts is whether such thinking interferes with everyday functioning.

You wouldn’t want to be at the skeptic end of the spectrum anyway. “To be totally ‘unmagical’ is very unhealthy,” says Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich. He has data, for example, strongly linking lack of magical ideation to anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. “Students who are ‘not magical’ don’t typically enjoy going to parties and so on,” he says. He’s also found that there’s a key chemical involved in magical thinking. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that the brain uses to tag experiences as meaningful, floods the brains of schizophrenics, who see significance in everything, but merely trickles in many depressives, who struggle to find value in everyday life. In one experiment, paranormal believers (who are high in dopamine) were more prone than nonbelievers to spot nonexistent faces when looking at jumbled images and also were less likely to miss the faces when they really were there. Everyone spotted more faces when given dopamine-boosting drugs. Brugger argues that the ability to see patterns and make loose associations enhances creativity and also serves a practical function: “If you’re on the grassland, it’s always better to assume that a tiger is there.”

Also from that last segment is a bit about magical thinking and technology which does a lot to explain why I’m so into gadgets and computers:

Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” comes to full fruition in cyberspace—a realm of avatars and instant messaging. And magical thinking may help us pluck the fruits of digital technology.

The mystical hunches that don’t always make sense in meat-space can make good in the datasphere. Computer viruses act even more like curses than real germs do, taking over computers and making them seem possessed. Icons work as charms that can open windows into new worlds, and simple clicks on buttons or links can have surprising and far-ranging effects. Action at a distance (for instance e-mail) works because everything is connected. In the real world, meaningful coincidences often incite unfounded suspicion about a mystical tinkerer behind the scenes. But with technology, intelligent agents really are pulling the strings—not deities but engineers and programmers. Computer hacks—solutions or tricks that sidestep normal operating procedures—are a form of coding magic. Or, as a geek might say, magic is a form of hacking nature.

Very cool stuff and worth a read.


The real problem with the brain is that it’s so easily fooled.

When people find out I’m an atheist it often results in a lively discussion on God, reality, and the nature of belief. One of the questions that invariably comes up is how I can discount the claims of miracles witnessed by so many people. It’s easy, I usually say, because the human mind is pretty bad about interpreting reality accurately. All it takes is a visit to a good magic show to see how true that is. I’ve seen various magicians cut assistants and themselves in half, walk on water, fly, walk through walls, make whole mountains disappear and more, but I know they didn’t really do those things.

Which is why it’s entirely appropriate that a number of magicians would be making presentations at the annual Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in Las Vegas that recently took place:

It was Sunday night on the Las Vegas Strip, where earlier this summer the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness was holding its annual meeting at the Imperial Palace Hotel. The organization’s last gathering had been in the staid environs of Oxford, but Las Vegas — the city of illusions, where the Statue of Liberty stares past Camelot at the Sphinx — turned out to be the perfect locale. After two days of presentations by scientists and philosophers speculating on how the mind construes, and misconstrues, reality, we were hearing from the pros: James (The Amazing) Randi, Johnny Thompson (The Great Tomsoni), Mac King and Teller — magicians who had intuitively mastered some of the lessons being learned in the laboratory about the limits of cognition and attention.

“This wasn’t just a group of world-class performers,” said Susana Martinez-Conde, a scientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix who studies optical illusions and what they say about the brain. “They were hand-picked because of their specific interest in the cognitive principles underlying the magic.”

“In real life if you see something done again and again, you study it and you gradually pick up a pattern,” he said as he walked onstage holding a brass bucket in his left hand. “If you do that with a magician, it’s sometimes a big mistake.”

Pulling one coin after another from the air, he dropped them, thunk, thunk, thunk, into the bucket. Just as the audience was beginning to catch on — somehow he was concealing the coins between his fingers — he flashed his empty palm and, thunk, dropped another coin, and then grabbed another from a gentlemen’s white hair. For the climax of the act, Teller deftly removed a spectator’s glasses, tipped them over the bucket and, thunk, thunk, two more coins fell.

As he ran through the trick a second time, annotating each step, we saw how we had been led to mismatch cause and effect, to form one false hypothesis after another. Sometimes the coins were coming from his right hand, and sometimes from his left, hidden beneath the fingers holding the bucket.

He left us with his definition of magic: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.”

The article is three pages long and touches on some of the various experiments that have been done on human perception and the limits of consciousness. One of the best quotes comes at the end from James Randi himself:

“Allow people to make assumptions and they will come away absolutely convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact,” Mr. Randi said. “It’s not necessarily so.”

So getting back to those inevitable discussions, I usually point out that the reason I don’t put a lot of stock into eyewitness accounts of anything without something else to back them up is because all too often what we think we see and what we do see are two different things.