The Nuance

Why Human Beings Are Hardwired for Spirituality and ‘Magical Thinking’

How mystical beliefs help people control stress and confront the unknown

Illustration by Kieran Blakey for Elemental

There’s an old saying that goes “there are no atheists in foxholes.” There also seem to be fewer atheists in a pandemic.

According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last March, many Americans who never pray or do not identify as religious said that, during the first weeks of the outbreak, they had prayed for it to end.

This impulse to beseech a higher power during times of crisis is a well-mapped phenomenon. Whenever people encounter emotional turmoil — following the death of a loved one, for example, or in the aftermath of a national tragedy — research has found that the popularity of prayer tends to rise. And not only does it rise, but it seems to help; people usually find comfort in prayer and other spiritual rituals.

The hope that some beneficent force will intervene during times of trouble — however casual or unfocused that hope may be — falls into a category of thinking that anthropologists and psychologists sometimes term “magical.” Though many who are religious may bristle at the term, magical thinking, in a nutshell, is usually defined as any kind of reasoning that is not strictly rational, logical, or scientific.

“It’s usually about inferring causality or an association where it doesn’t occur,” says Karl Rosengren, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who has written extensively about magical thinking. “Frankly, a lot of our thinking could be labeled as magical.”

He points out that many people, regardless of religious beliefs, might hesitate to buy a house if its previous owner was murdered. Another secular example of magical thinking is the jinx, or the belief that saying or doing the wrong thing could influence the outcome of some unrelated event. Lucky items — that pair of socks or earrings that seems to work wonders — also fall into the magical-thinking basket.

It’s easy to scoff at such superstitions. “As a label, people generally use [magical thinking] to describe the thinking of children, or of people they don’t like, or people from different cultures,” Rosengren says. But aspects of magical thinking appear to be deeply rooted in the brain. “This thinking originates from cognitive biases we all have,” he says. “We’re always searching for causality” — that is, for an explanation for why a particular thing has happened — “and this can lead us into thinking that is irrational but that in some cases may be adaptive.”

Put another way, our minds seem to recoil from events or circumstances that strike us as arbitrary. We want things to make sense, or to happen for a reason, because this allows us to better predict the future and plan accordingly. At those times when things don’t make sense or the future seems particularly uncertain, magical or spiritual thinking may help us cope.

Magical thinking and resilience

Take entrepreneurship, which is inherently risky. While the payoffs of starting a business can be immense, the early years of such ventures are often filled with uncertainty and turmoil. And so it should come as no surprise that entrepreneurs, as a group, tend to be more comfortable with both uncertainty and risk than the general public. Magical thinking may help explain these attributes.

The authors of a 2019 study in Organization Studies conducted interviews with 40 entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Canada. They found that many of the entrepreneurs were religious, but even those who weren’t often believed that “invisible forces” shape the world and peoples’ actions. This brand of spiritualism seemed to help them embrace risks or endure turbulent conditions that others would find repellent.

“When you start a business, the environment is so uncertain and the future so unpredictable that you need to take a leap of faith,” says Max Ganzin, PhD, one of the authors of that study and a lecturer at Macquarie University in Australia. “Belief in some higher purpose or force seems to help people take that leap.”

Even if a venture flounders or fails, entrepreneurs often regard such setbacks with relative equanimity, he says. They tend to view such challenges as part of a larger plan or picture — as something that was meant to be — rather than as evidence of their own folly or hubris. And this outlook helps them endure.

Importantly, Ganzin says that most of the entrepreneurs in his study were also very reasonable. These were not people who thought their actions didn’t matter, or who approached their ventures blithely. “But on top of their logical reasoning they had some kind of faith or magical thinking, and this blending of logics seems to help them,” he says.

Why we may all need a bit of magical thinking

Eugene Subbotsky, PhD, one of the foremost researchers on magical thinking, has written: “The belief in magic is a fundamental feature of the human mind, which is present throughout history, cultures, and the lifespan, and may have important implications for education and communication in the modern world.”

Of course, there are many times when magical thinking, especially too much of it, can get people into trouble. Countless academic careers have been built on the study of human irrationality and the many ways it imperils a person or group’s success, whether a person is interpreting a coincidence as a cause, or basing major life decisions on unrelated past experiences. But there also seem to be benefits.

Some of Subbotsky’s research on children has even found that watching films with magical content facilitates imaginative and creative thinking. He’s also found that magical thinking can enhance or broaden other aspects of cognitive functioning, including perception and memory.

It may also be that when life is emotionally and psychologically challenging — for example, during a pandemic — strictly logical thinking is suboptimal. A timely dose of magical thinking may provide some light in the darkness, as the research on prayer and religious rituals suggest.

“I think it’s part of our nature — it’s part of who we are as human beings — to not be overly rational all the time,” Ganzin says. He points out that, as America has become more secular and people have turned away from organized religion, there has been a concurrent rise in “spiritualism” and Eastern practices such as yoga and meditation that often incorporate ideas of connectedness or a guiding power.

“I think that magical thinking helps people fill a gap in their lives that brings psychological well-being,” he adds.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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