Essay: Magical Thinking vs Scientific Thinking

Updated on December 23, 2018
TessSchlesinger profile image

Tessa Schlesinger has been a writer since birth. She was published early, is opinionated, and, in her 7th decade, still continues to write.

"Everybody has this notion of the Middle Ages - certainly of the early Middle Ages - as being this very superstition era. I think that all eras are superstitious. We all have our magical thinking. Nicola Griffiths
"Everybody has this notion of the Middle Ages - certainly of the early Middle Ages - as being this very superstition era. I think that all eras are superstitious. We all have our magical thinking. Nicola Griffiths | Source

Are You a Magical Thinker or a Scientific Thinker or Both?

Are you a magical thinker or a scientific thinker? Do you believe that if you walk under the ladder that you are going to have a bad day? Or do you walk under the ladder, then check to see that the guy standing on the top rung, holding the bucket of paint, is steady on his feet? Or do you do both?

First, it’s important to define what magical thinking is, and how it differs from scientific thinking.

Amy Morin, author and psychologist, says...

"Somewhere along the line, positive thinking seems to have been confused with magical thinking. There's a notion that if you think positively enough, you can make anything happen, but all the positive thinking in the world won't deliver good fortune or prevent tragedy from striking."

Definition of Scientific Thinking

The scientific thinker carefully checks for evidence to see if one event was caused by another event. The term for this is empirical evidence. Wikipedia defines empirical evidence as “the information received by means of the senses, particularly by observation and documentation of patterns and behavior through experimentation.”

If you’ve ever been in a chemistry class, you will know that experiments are done in order to prove something. Everything is measured, observed, tested, and retested. So, for instance, in the video below, different elements are heated by a flame in order to see the colour of the flame.

If calcium continually shows up as one colour, potassium as another colour, with strontium as a third colour, then it can be said there is a causal link between the type of element and the colour at which it burns. That empirical evidence can later be used to determine what the element is.

Scientific thinkers always look for evidence. They carefully examine what is happening, then they backtrack to see what caused that event. Many, many tests are done, and the outcomes are then documented. Tests are done in many different ways to ensure that there is not another cause for a particular outcome.

The Scientific Thinking Process

Scientific thinking, however, also applies to the way we think about things in our everyday lives as well.

Did we miss the bus because we were rude to our neighbour or because the bus was early and had already departed by the time we arrived at the bus stop. Were we passed over for promotion (despite hard work and targets met) because we missed church on Sunday or because the boss-man preferred to elevate friend of his family? Did the car smash into us because the driver was high on weed or because we had cheated on the exam the day before?

The way we put together information in our daily lives is either the result of scientific thinking (where there is evidence the proves how cause and effect is connected) or it’s magical thinking and the evidence contradicts the connection.

An example would be that we always run out of money before month end. We attribute this to us earning insufficient money despite our income being above average. Scientific thinking would have us sit down for a few months, write down everything that we are spending, then examine where the money is going. This is the scientific process.

"Just think for how long humanity was controlled by mystical, magical thinking - the diseases and suffering that led to. We managed to survive, but just barely. It wasn't pretty." Neil deGrasse Tyson - Astrophysicist
"Just think for how long humanity was controlled by mystical, magical thinking - the diseases and suffering that led to. We managed to survive, but just barely. It wasn't pretty." Neil deGrasse Tyson - Astrophysicist | Source

Definition of Magical Thinking

The term ‘magical thinking’ is used by both psychologists and anthropologists to define the thinking processes of those who wrongly attribute the cause of one event to another.

So, for instance, a tribe in the Amazon jungle might believe that the egg that was laid by the chicken was a result of the chicken chirping every day. They, therefore, faithfully, lay out fruit for the chicken-god every day so that the chickens will always chirp. If the chicken chirps, they believe it will lay an egg or three every day. This would be magical thinking –the belief that one event happens as a result of another event without there being a plausible link of causation.

Another example, I take from real life. In the 60s, it was thought that the drought in South Africa was caused by women wearing mini-skirts.

Many pastors were preaching this. The newspapers were outraged by women wearing dresses and skirts that were four inches above the knee. A movement was created that brought pressure to bear on women to lengthen their skirts. At the same time, there was some serious prayer for rain.

Eventually, rain did come. Women, however, had not shorted their skirts. In fact, the micro-mini was born – that’s the one which ends right underneath your rear end.

Magical thinkers, however, were convinced that the rain was in response to their prayer. They were linking a natural event to a cause that was not proven. Prayer is a form of magical thinking.

Prayer is magical thinking because there is no evidence that the outcome was caused by prayer.

For instance, your friend has a severe infection and goes to hospital. She receives antibiotics and a few days later, she is much better. You have been praying for her, and you attribute her recovery to prayer.

Numerous studies have shown that prayer has no effect on the recovery.

How Magical Thinking Works

Who is More Successful? Magical Thinkers or Scientific Thinkers?

The upside of magical thinking is that it provides the courage and confidence to keep going. If one believes that the rabbit foot will enable one to win in the medium to long term at the casino, one will keep on gambling. By the same token, if one has a terrible boss and one believes that one’s prayers will eventually change the behaviour of one’s boss, one will continue to tolerate her behaviour and hold on to one’s job.

The downside of magical thinking is that the courage and confidence given by magical thinking may well have one’s efforts result in failure. Should one believe that one will eventually win at the casino, one can walk away with considerable debt and eventual bankruptcy. Belief in a particular path does not make it the right path.

The fact that some do succeed while employing magical thinking has more to do with the path being one that would have been selected by a scientific thinker as well.

Scientific thinkers may be faced with more negativity than they can handle. In the face of analysis that proves their efforts will be unsuccessful, rather than battle through, they try something else which is more calculated to work.

Going back to the casino example, take card-counting. Card-counting is a scientific method which gives the player as much as a 20% advantage when playing black jack. So effective is it that casinos are known to forbid players who use the method to play black jack (which is unethical). On the other hand, believing that the black rabbit foot in one’s rear pocket will help one win is not likely to result in a continual favourable run.

Scientific Thinking in a Casino

The Overlap Between Magical Thinking and Scientific Thinking

Many people apply logic and evidence to decisions which involve money, job hunting, crossing the road, etc., but they also believe that prayer or their lucky rabbit food or prayer will ensure their safety when a bullet pumping madman decides to go off his head.

The reason is obvious. In the face of situations which they are unable to control or fix, they resort to magical thinking.

Truly powerful people have no use for magical thinking. They are able to analyse situations and have the means to either fix it or live with it.

Are you a magical thinker (a believer in prayer), a scientific thinker (a believer in empirical evidence, or a bit of both (depending)?

See results

Why Magical Thinking is Dangerous to our Survival

The problem with magical thinking is that if you believe that the lucky rabbit foot will save you from the tsunami or that prayer will prevent the disastrous effects of global warming, you endanger not only your own life but the lives of others as well. Magical thinking will probably destroy our world as prayer, spells, lucky dice, voodoo shamanism, etc., do not work. It is the great tragedy of the 21st century that when we have so much capacity and knowledge, some, through a lack of skills, knowledge, and resources are forced to resort to magical thinking.

© 2018 Tessa Schlesinger


Submit a Comment
  • Natasha Medesi profile image

    Natasha Medesi 

    13 months ago

    I agree with this article, except that you gave extreme primitive examples for superstitions, I would say I'm magical thinker but I don't believe in this things about ledder and stuff, I just believe in balance of goodness and that when I wan't something badly that it will happen or that when I don't gossip other people, others won't gossip me too, or that when the moon is full I can't sleep all night, it's still not scientific way of thinking but it can be provable with some magical logic

  • TessSchlesinger profile imageAUTHOR

    Tessa Schlesinger 

    17 months ago

    I make nothing of it. I believe it exists. I think it happens when the brain slows down to theta speed. However it is merely an interpretation of my experience. There could be other explanations. The fact that I accept there could be other explanations means I am applying scientific thinking.

  • Jay C OBrien profile image

    Jay C OBrien 

    17 months ago from Houston, TX USA

    "Scientific thinkers always look for evidence. They carefully examine what is happening, then they backtrack to see what caused that event."

    We need to look for evidence of our greater selves. See, "My Telepathic Experiences," five times in my life telepathy occurred and four times it was verified by the other person. What do you make of that?


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