Q&A: Why Superstition and ‘Magical Thinking’ Have Real Benefits

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Can superstitious beliefs — like having a lucky outfit, avoiding black cats or knocking on wood — actually be useful? That’s what journalist Matthew Hutson argues in The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane.

Healthland spoke with Hutson about the power and peril of these ideas.

What is magical thinking?
The technical definition I use is the “attribution of mental properties to non-mental phenomena or vice versa” — treating the natural world as if it had elements of mind or consciousness, or treating your own thoughts as if they could have a physical influence on the world.

What’s an example of magical thinking?
For instance, believing that your thoughts can affect reality directly through wishing or the law of attraction. If you think something and then it happens, often you feel a little bit responsible. You see your thought as the cause of the event. Another example is believing that certain things were meant to happen, in divine intervention.

Why are people so prone to these types of beliefs?
One common underlying factor is the tendency to see patterns in the world. We often see patterns when they aren’t there, and if we see a pattern between what’s going on inside our heads and outside in the world, if an event happens that has particular meaning, you might draw the conclusion and think that the event occurred in order to send your life down a particular path or communicate a message.

(MORE: Can You Learn to Play an Instrument at 40? Q&A with Psychologist Gary Marcus)

Was this tendency to see patterns everywhere helpful to survival during evolution?
There are advantages to it. It’s tough to say whether it’s an adaptation or a byproduct of other adaptive cognitive tendencies.

A couple of benefits are a sense of control and a sense of meaning. We have lots of superstitions like knocking on wood, crossing our fingers or wearing a lucky T-shirt that give an illusory sense of control.

You say these rituals can actually help.
There is one study where people were given a golf ball and asked to make 10 putts. Half were told that the ball was lucky and these people made 35% more successful putts than the others did.

So, are you saying that books like The Secret, which claim that we can get what we want just by having positive thoughts — that we can cure cancer by being more hopeful, for instance — are correct?
Belief in The Secret is not all bad. It can be thought of as a heuristic. The law of attraction does work, just not through mystical means. There are positive effects to optimism and positive visualization. It helps you achieve your goals and if you act a certain way, people will respond to that. If you act confident, people will treat you as competent and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But that doesn’t cure cancer. You can’t think away your cancer. I would say that magical thinking can be beneficial in situations where you do have some amount of control, where your thoughts can influence your behavior, which can influence reality. In cases where thoughts cannot influence anything, it’s powerless and can lead you down dangerous paths.

Do we have magical thinking to deal with fear of death?
We have an intuition that mind can exist independent of the body and that even if the body dies, our consciousness will continue, or when someone else dies, they’ll still be around and we can communicate with them or they can be ghost and hang out with us.

We’re very attentive to thinking about minds. We’re very social, so we’re always thinking about what others are thinking or what we’re thinking. It makes sense to detect minds in our environment so we can collaborate with other people or animals, or so that we can avoid or predict what’s going on in our environment. We’re biased to see minds even when they’re not there.

So if your computer crashes, you may think it’s intentionally trying to [sabotage you] and you’ll get mad and maybe yell. If something happens that has some personal meaning to you, you might jump to credit or blame someone or something. If there’s no animal or person, you might suppose there’s an intentional force in the universe directing these effects in your life.

And some researchers say this explains the belief in God.
If you have a sense that some sort of power or mind or agent in the world is controlling things on a large scale or small scale and you can’t blame another person, you can build a whole mythology. Religions take our natural instinct to attribute intent to events; they build stories and myths about a guy with a beard in the clouds or tree spirits or that sort of thing.

Why are we inclined to believe in fate?
We have a desire to control our environment, either directly or through predicting what’s going to happen or seeing patterns we can somehow use to inform our own behavior. One type of pattern to see is to recognize the actions of another agent. We understand agency very well — we can [often] predict what people are going to do. Fate or destiny are ways of describing the sense that everything in our lives was intentionally caused by some sort of agent or mind that has plans for our lives.

There’s also a strong inclination to see the world as fair and to see people as deserving of their fates.
The sense of karma or immanent justice is an example of magical thinking. If you do something good, good things will happen through cosmic justice. We’re motivated to believe that, because it makes us feel better about the world if good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people.

We also learn through our social environment that good things tend to happen to good people more frequently because if you’re nice to people, people are [often] nice back. So there’s a learning mechanism going on there too and we apply it more broadly to things outside the social world.

Of course, terrible things often do happen to good people.
Yes. [And with magical thinking,] we can try to make ourselves feel better by seeing those terrible things as not so terrible, or a good person as not so good. We blame victims [because] it is upsetting to think of terrible things happening to a good person, so we may try to rationalize it by saying that the person was asking for it.

Can we use magical thinking deliberately to our advantage?
One possible lesson from the golf ball study would be that making yourself feel lucky in certain situations can improve your performance. The researcher who did that experiment also had people hold lucky charms and found that they performed better on cognitive tests. If you feel anxious and could use a bit of confidence, perhaps performing a little ritual might help or carrying a lucky charm.

[Also] if something terrible happens and you see it as somehow meant to happen, that can help you cope with the trauma and grow. It gives you a sense of meaning and purpose if you can see the benefits or find the bright side.

That’s fine as long as you don’t decide that traumatizing other people will be good for them, too.
There’s a double-edged sword in all of these elements.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
I became an atheist when I was about 10. I was very strident and denounced religion and superstition in all forms. I thought we should all aspire to be logical and rational in all realms. But going through this research really highlights how irrational we are and how deeply rooted magical thinking is even in complete skeptics like me. We still have a tendency to believe in things like ghosts, extra-sensory perception and essences.

Secondly, this is not always bad. There’s such a thing as a positive illusion and it’s not always best to have a clear-eyed picture of the world.

I’ve seen some studies showing that depressed people actually do see things more accurately.
There’s some research suggesting a phenomenon called depressive realism and the idea is that depressed people have a more realistic view of the world than healthy people do. Being a little overconfident and a little over optimistic appears to be part of mental health.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.