My Favorite Things: Do You Believe in Magic?

Posted inDesign Thinking

Do you have a lucky sweater?

Maybe a lucky coin or charm?

How about a lucky number?

Chances are some item(s) will come to mind for most of us when asked those questions.

It seems that there’s something in the way we make sense of the world that leaves room for these objects to exert a force that has nothing to do with their physical makeup.

What the heck is that about?

Anthropologists and psychologists have long studied our “irrational connections” between objects and perceived effects. They’ve settled on describing these connections as arising from “magical thinking.”

We’re all familiar with magical thinking. We’re wearing a particular sweater, carrying a coin, or thinking of a number and something notable happens. Regardless of whether that notable event is positive or negative, our (unconscious) pattern-seeking-storytelling-sense-making cognitive mechanisms kick into high gear, searching for explanations. We hunger for answers: “why did this happen right now?

Those mechanisms make it easy (imperative?) for us to associate effects in the world with tangible causes.

We’re uncomfortable with randomness. It seems we’ve evolved a strong propensity to ascribe causes to events, probably so that we can attempt to predict and control them in the future. As the lived-center of our worlds, we most often search for connections between things that happen in the world and ways that we may have caused them to occur. (Remember, all of this is happening beyond our conscious awareness.) When immediately plausible causes aren’t apparent, we widen the search until we settle on one that satisfies us.

This is where magical thinking comes in.

If someone were to ask you to explain how wearing a certain sweater on a particular day was a cause of, for instance, finding your “lost” passport, you’d be hard pressed to come up with an answer that made any sense.

That’s because magical thinking is just that… magical. Technically, it’s a kind of private logic characterized as a “category error”: “a statement attribut[ing] to something qualities that it could not possibly possess.”

Furthermore, from Wikipedia: “once the phenomenon in question (e.g., finding your passport) is properly understood (e.g., finally looking in the place where you’d stored it for “safe keeping”), it becomes clear that the claim being made about it (e.g., you found it because of the sweater you were wearing) could not possibly be true.” (Italicized segments are mine.)

Logic be damned! From now on, this is your Lucky Sweater!

Does this obvious mismatch between cause and effect preclude us from using magical thinking-derived explanations of the world in the future?

Of course not!

Ever try talking someone out of a superstition?

Ever try eliminating one of your own?

Not easy, is it?

And this is where favorites come in. Many of the objects that we count amongst our favorite things are “characters” in magical explanatory stories. These unexamined connections lead us to retain “special” items of all kinds, “sources” of good luck or “protection” against its opposite. If you look around your world, you’re likely to find a few things you privately believe are helping you navigate your life as safely and prosperously as possible! (I’ll refrain from including religious objects in this category, but…)

We believe living in the 21st century means we have “progressed” beyond the primitive ways our predecessors explained the world. Of course, thunderstorms are the consequence of well-understood atmospheric conditions and not the result of the gods being angry with us! But it doesn’t take much for us to discover remnants of our ancestors’ ways of thinking in our own.

Years ago, I came up with a rubric that’s a corollary to the general magical thinking framework.

I called it, “the rule of saying…”

If something is bad and you say it, it happens.
If something is good and you say it, it stops.

And, remember, as Muriel Rukeyser wrote,

“The universe is made of stories,
Not of atoms.”

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Tom’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Header image generated by the author on Midjourney.