Does ‘Magical Thinking’ Help People Lose Weight?

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For some people struggling to lose weight, researchers say it may help to engage in a little “magical thinking” as a way to cope with the stress of dieting and being overweight.

Magical thinking is not the same as wishful thinking. If you’ve bought a lottery ticket simply hoping you’ll win, that’s wishful thinking. But if you’ve bought a lottery ticket and picked numbers based on your mother’s birth date, feeling that this might change your chances — even while you admit that, mathematically, it doesn’t — that’s magical thinking.

Wishful thinking is blind hope. Magical thinking is a belief that there are forces in play beyond what we can see and know about the physical world — which can give people hope.

Magical thinking is easy to dismiss. For many, it will seem like a naïve, delusional haven for those who lack the capacity to deal with life’s realities. But it’s actually a coping mechanism that may be more familiar than you think. Shark-attack victims say they continue to surf because, really, the universe would never let such a thing happen to a person twice. Good people who have gone years searching for a mate feel that they are certainly closer today than ever to finding their love. These are only more practical, secular cousins of statements like, “If you’re good, you’ll go to heaven.”

It is the relationship between this type of thinking and weight loss that HEC Montréal marketing professor Yannik St. James explores in the study “Magical Thinking and Consumer Coping.” Using interviews, collections of memoirs and weight-loss blogs, she and her colleagues analyzed how dieters used magical thinking in their pound-shedding attempts.

There were, of course, people buying into silver-bullet diet fads or pills or gurus. Historical magic may have been about rain dances, St. James says, “But today, magic is very much in the marketplace. It’s embodied in consumer goods, and it’s represented in advertising discourse.” Products, she says, are constantly portrayed as being able to transform something about you, perhaps your entire life. (And consumers’ subsequent suspension of disbelief certainly helps the economic world go ’round.)

But the study participants also often made more mystical-sounding statements about how their bodies were “working against them” or how food was “seducing” them. They expressed beliefs that by denying themselves foods they wanted, they were owed the reward of being thinner, regardless of the science of caloric intake. And dieters spoke separately of their “true” selves and the bodies they wanted to change.

Although some of these may not seem like helpful thoughts, St. James found that the uncertainty that such beliefs provide about what forces are at work in the weight-loss battle can have positive effects. “Uncertainty becomes a source of hope since it transforms impossibilities into possibilities,” the authors write. Because, at any moment, bodies theoretically could start working with the dieters or the food could stop seducing. “This compels us to consider that the distinction between magical thinking and scientific thinking does not lie in a different ability to distinguish reality and fantasy,” they write, “but in a different position toward the possible.”

This expansion of possibilities, however imagined, gives some dieters the resolve to stick with the more mundane lifestyle changes that successful weight loss requires. “Magical thinking is a way for them to sustain their hope and therefore sustain their dieting and exercising,” St. James says.

Allowing certain blends of reality and fantasy helped people cope with the stresses and stigma of being overweight and being on a diet, things over which they have limited control. “It’s not that they reject their responsibility or their ability to lose weight,” St. James explains, “but they construct it as being influenced by something else that they can negotiate.”

In some instances, the researchers found that when a magical belief about dieting was broken, the dieter simply abandoned all weight loss efforts. That suggests that weight-loss programs that force dieters to exert more self-control or forgo their magical thoughts may backfire. “Indeed, these approaches eliminate certain consumer coping strategies without affecting the source of stress — the cultural expectation to be thin in a culture that entices consumers with endless unhealthy food and lifestyle alternatives,” the authors write.

But magical thinking can be dangerous too, because it’s equally capable of sustaining unrealistic expectations — like the belief that, say, going off a diet for the holidays will somehow be helpful in the long run. Many of the people they interviewed, the authors explain, referred to “magical solution regimes as ‘flexible’ compared to the ‘restrictive’ nature of regiments that really work.”

So should all dieters start thinking more magically? St. James doesn’t go that far. “Humans have always used magic to make sense of the world and even to act on the world. When we say that, we don’t mean magic works,” St. James says. “That’s not the point. It’s that it’s a meaningful concept for people, like consumers, to use to understand their daily life.”

The full study will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research in December.