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Even though we are in the 21st century, numerous superstitions from times gone by still prevail. Many of these superstitions were intended to bring good fortune, health, wealth and happiness; for example, pulling the wishbone from the Christmas turkey or blowing out the candles on your birthday cake, to make a wish, and not revealing any details of that wish in case it didn’t come true. How often have you touched wood when hoping for a positive outcome of something, or taken a lucky mascot into an exam?
Conversely, there are other superstitions that were intended to portray bad luck, such as breaking a mirror being a precursor of 7 years bad luck, or it being unlucky when a black cat crosses your path.
These superstitions can encourage people to imagine that their actions will lead to good or bad luck, however irrational that may be. Many people carry them out without them interfering with their lives; they can be enjoyable and harmless, such as tossing a coin into a wishing well and making a wish. However, for some people, superstitions and other types of actions, which are known as magical thinking, can be disruptive, especially for those with mental health disorders.
What is magical thinking?
Magical thinking is a type of thinking pattern known as cognitive distortion, and most often involves a belief that thoughts or actions can cause or prevent harm to the person themselves or to others. When the person believes these thoughts strongly, they are convinced that their ideas, thoughts, actions, words, rituals or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the real world.
Magical thinking is not inherently harmful and is actually a common part of many cultures. It can be a way that people represent their religious or spiritual beliefs, such as in the rituals involved in religious rites and ceremonies. It can also be traditions, customs or superstitious habits picked up from a young age from family members or friends. Most people will know at least two or three superstitions, even if they don’t believe in them.
Some examples of these include:
- Believing in lucky numbers
- Crossing your fingers or touching wood for good luck or to prevent bad luck
- Having a lucky object or mascot
- Taking Christmas decorations down before 12th night
- Refusing to change an item of clothing while a sports team is on a winning streak
- Avoiding commitments on Friday the 13th
- Renumbering, for example, houses, building floors, or aeroplane seats to avoid using the number 13
- Thinking bad luck comes in threes
- Never opening an umbrella inside
- Never stating the name of the play Macbeth in a theatre, where it is known as the Scottish Play
These might be called magical thinking, but they don’t necessarily cause distress or harm. However, if magical thinking causes a person to perform actions to neutralise intrusive thoughts, it may be a symptom of a mental health condition.
Magical thinking is considered a cognitive distortion because it is not based on fact; for example, there is no scientific proof that wishing for something will make it come true. Cognitive distortions are consistent unhelpful, unrealistic or irrational thoughts, or errors in our thinking; the way that we are thinking about something doesn’t match up with the reality of what is happening.
Magical thinking can be helpful or obstructive depending on how the thoughts affect a person, their relationships, and their quality of life. Whilst many people will see much of life’s occurrences as coincidences, they may feel that a little magical thinking can do no harm from time to time if it boosts their confidence. However, people who engage in magical thinking consistently and habitually believe that their thoughts, feelings and/or actions impact their life, despite there being no evidence of a plausible connection.
The power of positive thinking has been thought of as magical thinking, particularly when positive thoughts appear in some cases to improve physical health. There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that thinking good thoughts can cure physical health conditions such as cancer; however, evidence does suggest that staying positive can change a person’s outlook and help them to manage stress and depression more easily.
What are the causes of magical thinking?
Many researchers believe that magical thinking is a natural part of childhood development, starting when a child is between the ages of 2 to 5 years old, as children start to become aware of the supernatural, such as ghosts and spirits, for example, at Halloween. Starting at a young age, a person often learns well-known rituals and superstitions within their culture, which continue throughout generations. As development continues, magical thinking will often lessen.
Research also suggests that there can be an overlap between religious thinking and magical thinking. Engaging in rituals or traditions related to a person’s religious or cultural background is common practice and seen across various religions and cultures. People feel highly connected to their practices and beliefs, which often provides a sense of comfort and peace.
During the course of our lives people develop mental mechanisms such as magical thinking, designed to help them cope with the stress and anxiety of everyday life and relationships. However, over time some of these mechanisms become obsolete and they dispense with them or use them only occasionally. For some people, however, these mental mechanisms such as magical thinking may become out of control, and rather than help alleviate the stress and anxiety they can actually cause and increase it.
Sometimes, magical thinking can serve as a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. Certain mental health disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and schizophrenia, involve thought disturbances and cognitive distortions, such as magical thinking.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that mainly focuses on unwanted and intrusive thought content. The condition affects as many as 12 in every 1,000 people (1.2% of the population), from young children to adults, regardless of gender, or social or cultural background. Magical thinking obsessive-compulsive disorder (mtOCD) is an OCD subtype characterised by ongoing intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours around superstition or magical thinking to prevent negative experiences or harm to oneself or others.
People with magical thinking OCD experience frequent intrusive thoughts that they will be responsible for something awful happening if they do not perform specific actions. Even if the person logically understands their fear and rituals are not connected or rational, the fear of causing themselves or another person harm is so great that they will engage in their compulsions just to be certain. In more severe cases, magical thinking OCD can impede someone’s ability to function in their everyday life. These rituals can become incredibly time-consuming and lead a person to avoid situations, locations or people as part of their compulsions.
People with anxiety often have high levels of magical thinking. For example, they might spend a lot of time worrying about outcomes that are in reality unlikely or not realistic. By thinking about what they don’t want to happen, they believe they are protecting themselves against these undesirable outcomes. For a person with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), magical thinking can become a coping mechanism that they use to try to lessen their anxiety.
Delusional disorders such as those linked to schizophrenia spectrum disorders can cause people to have magical thoughts or perceptions. A study found a strong association between magical thinking and auditory hallucinations in people living with schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia might:
- Believe they have special powers
- Believe they must take specific actions to protect against evil
- Attach deep or significant meaning to everyday happenings
Schizophrenia is a major illness. At any one time about 220,000 people are being treated for schizophrenia in the UK by the NHS.
Types of magical thinking
Some of the common types of magical thinking include:
Superstitions – as we have seen earlier in this article, superstitions are a type of magical thinking. They are common in most cultures and typically date back centuries. Most people acknowledge them, or carry them out, but consider them to be insignificant to their lives. However, there are some people who might be affected enough by them that they influence the choices that they make, or they impact their mood, even causing anxiety. In addition to those superstitions referred to above, other superstitions still around today include:
- An itchy palm predicts good luck, especially money luck
- If you have spilled salt, it’s bad luck, but tossing a pinch of the spilled salt over your shoulder turns this into good luck
- Saying “bless you” when someone sneezes
- Avoiding walking under an open ladder for fear of bad luck
- Placing your thumb between your index and middle fingers and holding it for at least 5 seconds to protect you from evil
- A bird flying into your home is a bad sign
- Never put new shoes on the table, it’s bad luck
- Saying “rabbit, rabbit” or “white rabbits” on the first day of every month ensures good luck for that month
Rituals – these are a form of magical thinking that often focuses on preventing harm or bad luck and encouraging good luck and good fortune. Rituals involve performing certain actions either physically or mentally to magically make something happen. These are known as compulsions. Engaging in these rituals often provides individuals with a sense of security and control over life experiences. If prevented from engaging in a compulsion, the person can experience anxiety and a sense of guilt that they did not protect the people or things they care about. These rituals are particularly prevalent in people with OCD. There are a few overlaps between rituals and superstitions, for example someone compulsively touching wood every time they think of something they don’t want to happen. Some examples of common ritualistic compulsions include, but are not limited to:
- Repeating words, thoughts or actions to ward off something negative
- Engaging in behaviours around “good” numbers, colours, words or dates, such as crossing a doorway a certain number of times
- Arranging items in a particular order that feels safe or good
- Repeating body movements such as tapping, touching, blinking
- Counting while performing a task to end on a good, right or safe number
- Thinking special words, sayings, images or phrases
Associations – these are another type of magical thinking that involves linking specific outcomes to something that can not directly cause them. The concepts of karma or fate are linked to this type of magical thinking, for example someone is rude to you, then you see them missing their bus – karma. Other examples of associations include, but are not limited to:
- Telling your car that you will wash it if only it will start, then it does start
- Thinking about someone you haven’t seen for a while and then bumping into them the next day
- Saying how wonderful an appliance is and it breaks down the next day
- Thinking that you haven’t taken any sick leave and then get a bad cold
- Lending a friend some money and then winning the lottery
- You weren’t invited to an outdoor event; you then hear it poured with rain all day
- Believing that if you wish hard enough you will get what you want
- Assigning power to objects, such as you will only get the job if you wear your lucky shoes to the interview
Signs of magical thinking
As is the case with all mental health disorders, there is a spectrum of severity with magical thinking. At one end of the scale are people who almost flippantly think or say things such as “fingers crossed” when they are looking for a good outcome, through to those for whom the symptoms of magical thinking become so severe that they are impacting on their everyday life. For example, if a person occasionally reads their horoscope, this is not regarded as a problem; however, if they compulsively use horoscopes to address their everyday problems and refuse to leave the house on the basis of what the horoscope predicts for the day, then they have let their magical thinking and superstitions impact their welfare and quality of life.
When magical thinking is at the lower end of the spectrum, it can offer a sense of comfort, feel more in control of things and reduce distress or frustration, such as taking that lucky teddy bear into an exam. If the situation does turn out the way that you hoped, it was probably because of the teddy, even though it doesn’t actually have power. It helped you to reach a mindset where you felt better equipped to face the exam.
However, signs that magical thinking is reaching the higher end of the spectrum is when it causes significant distress or disruption in a person’s life. They may be putting pressure on themselves to make things happen with their thoughts or actions to the point that they feel personally responsible for negative events. They may also feel as though they have failed when they forget to perform a ritual related to a desired outcome. They may berate themselves with negative self-talk causing anxiety and even depression. In some cases, magical thinking can become extremely debilitating. If engaging with magical thinking causes significant distress and impacts a person’s day-to-day life, this may be indicative of a mental health concern.
How to overcome magical thinking
Magical thinking can be a source of comfort. It can also provide a false sense of control when individuals feel distressed and out of control. If it causes distress or disruption in your life, it is advisable to examine your magical thinking.
For most people, magical thinking is a habit, and like any other habit, you need to notice it to be able to break it. Once noticed, fortunately, there are things that you can do about it.
Try to identify when your magical thinking takes place. Does it happen during times of stress or worry? Now that you know what magical thinking is, start to notice and even name it when you are engaging in it. This will help make you more aware and give you more opportunities to challenge it.
Try saying your magical thoughts aloud to realise how ridiculous and false that they really are. “Am I really not going to book the cheapest flight because it is on Friday the 13th, am I really going to spend £50 more to fly the next day?”
Try looking for evidence for and against the thought to take away its credibility and power, and when you have found enough evidence against the thought to prove it is faulty, find a neutral or positive thought to replace it with.
Slowly try to deviate from any rigid compulsive rituals such as, if you have to switch the light on and off three times, try to reduce this to twice and note down what happens, how did you feel? Were there any negative happenings?
Mindfulness helps you observe your thoughts without judgement and be more present in the moment. Try breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help.
If you are struggling with magical thinking, particularly if it is affecting your mental wellbeing, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).
If you are concerned that through your magical thought processes you may have the signs or symptoms of undiagnosed mental health disorders such as OCD, anxiety, depression or schizophrenia disorders, you should in the first instance contact your GP who will be able to refer you to mental health professionals who can help with diagnosis, therapies and treatment.
Occasional magical thinking is normal; in its mildest form it is not an issue. Sometimes these thoughts can be comforting and/or harmless to us and our mental health. Having your fingers crossed as you wait, for example, for the result of an MOT test won’t affect the result, but it makes the waiting feel better. But also try challenging some of these superstitions – next time you spill salt, just sweep it up.