Magical Thinking



I have always been fascinated by what is called magical thinking.  I first encountered the term when I was studying psychology and child development.  The reference that I recall refers to a child making random and reflexive movements as it learned to control its musculature down the center core and out to the extremities.  As he made a random motion, some external event would happen.  He repeats the movement and the event happens again.  A more specific example might be an infant lying on its back in a crib and waving its right hand when hears the phone ring.  He continues to wave his right hand and the phone continues to ring.  Eventually the infant “learns” that by moving its right hand it can make the phone ring. (Obviously, the child does not apply any of these terms, these are just stimulus events which occur at a point when the child is still pre-verbal.) What is happening is that the child in the primitive stages of “thinking” is making a causative correlation.  X causes Y.   I move my hand then the phone rings. This kind of causative correlation is what eventually becomes, in a more mature and elaborate form, “magical thinking.”

A more “mature” example would be an athlete who has a lucky batting ritual.  He stamps his feet four times, wiggles the bat just so, cocks his hat and spits twice before he takes the pitch.  At some point in his past, he associated all these movements with a successful at bat.  Many athletes have such “rituals”, as do gamblers, with lucky shirts, lucky betting combinations, etc.  Sometimes people with OCD have magical thinking, rituals that help them calm down and enable them to complete some task or reach some goal.

In a less severe form, most of us use some kind of magical thinking.  One way we may do this is to believe that if we are good, good things or lucky things will happen to us. The Universe (or God) takes note and keeps score.  If I am a good person, I will get a college scholarship, my parents and the girl will love me, I will be rich, and life will go my way.  If things are not going my way, it must be because I have not been “good” in the right way.  I mustn’t have followed the rules or behaved in the approved way.  I must have had a “bad” thought or desire that I was not supposed to have, and life is punishing me for my error. We attempt to impose our illogical form of “reasoning” to help us understand the randomness of fate.  This, again, is “magical thinking.”

I began thinking about this term because of a conversation I had with a client.  This client was convinced that bad things were happening in her life because she hadn’t found the magic formula. The client, I will call her Sarah, had some difficult challenges in her life.  She was caring for an elderly parent with dementia and an adult sibling who was incapable of caring for herself.   Additionally, her grandchild was diagnosed with an acute health problem.  Why were all these things happening to her?  She was a good person.  She worked hard.  Everyone described her as caring and dependable.  Life wasn’t fair!

Sarah was right.  Life is not fair.  I tried to explain to her that fair is not an adult concept.  It is reasoning that a young child might use.  It is “magical thinking.”  If I do all the right things, follow all the rules, and think pure thoughts good things will happen to me.  But we all know that life does not work like that.  In fact, life is not fair.  Someone is healthy, someone is sickly.  Someone is rich, someone is poor.  The ignored child who runs the streets without rules and supervision lives no matter the risks they take yet, the perfect child, who is sheltered, monitored, and supervised by doting loving parents, gets run over by a truck.  Life simply is not fair.

I wanted my client to hear that everyone gets hurt.  I said to her, you can not avoid getting hurt in this life.  You will hurt, you will loose, and you will die.  This is a life experience that everyone must endure.  These are the events in our lives that we can not control or avoid.  What we can do is work to live every day the best we can. We can decide to see life as an adventure and a journey. There will be detours, there will be dead ends, and there will be losses.  Yet, hope springs eternal in the human breast, and there will be days of sun shine and glory, days of laughter and fun, days of victory and joy.  These are adages because there is truth in them.


Victor Frankel talked in one of his books about not being able to change reality.  He said if you cannot change reality, then you must change the way you understand and interpret reality.  I want my client to change the way she perceives life and reality.  I want her to be realistic and not indulge in fantasy magical thinking which results in her stubbornly acting out her frustration in destructive ways and being angry because life is not fair.  If my client is able to make these changes in perception, her basic approach to life will be more free and joyous with less anger and spite.  And, that would be good therapy.


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