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"Magical thinking" is typically employed as a pejorative term. Healthy magical thinking, can only up new possibilities through the power of the placebo effect.

Most psychologists define the term "magical thinking" as finding associations that aren't really there, or that groups of psychologists aren't ready to accept are really there. Magical thinking is something all of us experience every day, and something in which many of us indulge on a regular basis. Rather than quoting a lot of well-known science about how humans seek patterns in their experience and come to accept spurious correlations I'll give you some examples of magical thinking in practice.

  • When my nephew was about three years old, he went through a phase in which my name could have been "Can-I-Please-Have-A-Quarter-Uncle-Robert." At that time, 25 cents was enough to get one chance to operate a claw in a glass cage to pick out a toy. One evening my nephew asked for a quarter and announced he was going to pick out a green stuffed rabbit toy. He was barely tall enough to see into the machine, but when I gave him the quarter, he went through a good luck ritual he had devised on his own. He blew on the quarter, rubbed his stomach, and said "Ahh." Within seconds he had done the impossible, and he was the owner of a green stuffed rabbit.
  • When my neighbor's grandson was five years old, he and his grandparents and I all went fishing. Nobody was catching anything, and the five-year-old was becoming frustrated. Eventually he turned to his grandmother and said, "Can I pray?" She told him yes, and he asked God to give him a fish. The next time he stuck his unbaited hook into the water he caught the only fish of the day for any of us. He asked his grandmother if he could pray again, and she said no.
  • I myself have a superstition about picking up (American) pennies I see on the sidewalk. If Abraham Lincoln's likeness is face up, I put the penny in my pocket. Invariably I experience some monetary windfall of $10 or $20 a day or two later. Sometimes I pick three lucky numbers in the Lotto. (I admit that a certain amount of magical thinking is necessary to make a habit of spending even $1 a week in the lottery.) Sometimes I get a coupon for something I would otherwise buy. I have had a $20 bill come in the mail once. Usually finding a penny on the ground leads in a day or two to a small but pleasant surprise.
All of these events are examples of magical thinking. The power of magical thinking, however, is not limited to stuffed rabbits, fish, and $20 windfalls. It can also be applied to health.

Random Magical Thinking Doesn't Work

When I first met him, Sam was a 42-year-old doctoral student. Having worked for many years as a biomedical engineer, Sam had decided to go back to graduate school to earn his PhD so he could pursue research. Sam was floundering in his program, however, because he suffered migraine headaches nearly every week.
Sam's migraines not only came every week, they would last for two or three days. He had seen neurologists, psychiatrists, chiropractors, massage therapists, Reiki masters, hypnotists, and herbalists.Sam really didn't think that Reiki or hypnotism would help, but he tried them out of desperation. For Sam, the only interventions that helped him deal with the pain were a powerful narcotic called Demerol and a less powerful narcotic called Vicodin. Sam had prescriptions that allowed him to buy 12 injections of Demerol and 180 Vicodin tablets every 30 days. Using the powerful medications was, Sam thought, the only thing that kept him from spending half of every week in the emergency room seeking relief from headache pain. 
Unfortunately for Sam, the medications just weren't working well enough for Sam to get all his work done and stay in his PhD program. Demerol and Vicodin relieved his pain, but after he took the analgesic drugs, he was basically out of commission the rest of the day. After leaving a well-paid and secure job, selling his house, and cashing in his retirement accounts to pursue his dreams, just a few years before his own children would be entering college, Sam came to equate migraines with potential unemployment. Indeed, Sam had been fired from his last job for taking too many sick days. Sam's problems were compounded by beginning to have panic attacks. Nothing was working to make him better.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Kaptchuk TJ, Friedlander E, Kelley JM, Sanchez MN, Kokkotou E, Singer JP, Kowalczykowski M, Miller FG, Kirsch I, Lembo AJ. Placebos without deception: a randomized controlled trial in irritable bowel syndrome. PLoS One. 2010 Dec 22.5(12):e15591. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015591.
  • Kaptchuk TJ, Kelley JM, Conboy LA, Davis RB, Kerr CE, Jacobson EE, Kirsch I, Schyner RN, Nam BH, Nguyen LT, Park M, Rivers AL, McManus C, Kokkotou E, Drossman DA, Goldman P, Lembo AJ. Components of placebo effect: randomised controlled trial in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.BMJ. 2008 May 3. 336(7651):999-1003. doi: 10.1136/bmj.39524.439618.25. Epub 2008 Apr 3.PMID: 18390493.
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