The Nuance

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

How mystical beliefs help people control stress and confront the unknown

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readMar 11, 2021

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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…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.