Nonfiction Notes: Matthew Hutson’s The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

Matthew Hutson, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, 2012)

Yet another book about irrational beliefs and cognitive illusions! After the ones by Shermer, Duffy, and Rosenberg just discussed. The difference from all the others with this one, is that it takes a counter-intuitive, playful stance. Give in to your irrational beliefs, Hutson says, at least superficially, at least in some corner of your mind. You’ll be happier! And you can retain your rational understanding that these beliefs aren’t actually true, if pretending they’re true calms your nerves.

In other words, learn to harness, not eradicate, cognitive dissonance.

The author is a journalist, an editor at Psychology Today, and has only ever written this one book. He doesn’t even have an entry at Wikipedia.

This is a book replete with examples that illustrate just a few – well, seven – themes. So even though I took 6100 words of note as I read the book last year, I’ll boil them down here to those seven themes. The themes range from, at the beginning, relatively mundane superstitions, to, by the end, heavyweight topics about immortality, gods, and destiny.

(I note that Frank Wilczek’s recent book boiled these themes down to just two, in the passage from page 64 quoted at the bottom here:


  • Everyone believes in magic, even if you say you don’t. We depend on it for survival value.
  • Author attended church early in life, until reading Hawking, Russell, et al, and becoming an atheist. Yet wondering why so many others found value in belief.
  • So he doesn’t want to eradicate magical thinking; he wants to harness it. These traits must be evolutionarily successful. But useful doesn’t mean they’re accurate.
  • There are two levels of thinking: the slow rational; the instinctive magical. [[ This parallel’s Kahneman’s slow and fast thinking. ]] One way of thinking about it is as a confusion of subjectivity and objectivity, about category mistakes.

Ch1, Objects Carry Essences: cooties, contagion, and historicity

  • People are sentimental about objects associated with famous people; in general, people think objects contain ‘essences’ of other objects.
  • Underlying basis: The idea of sympathetic magic. Perhaps rooted in the sense of disgust, which understood evolutionarily, promotes health.
  • Major example: how John Lennon’s piano, the one he composed “Imagine” on, became an object of adoration and focus of world tour fans.
  • Other examples: children’s preference for originals; recipients of organ donations who think they’ve acquired characteristics of the donors; how soil from particular places is thought to have value; how germs from enemies thought worse than germs from friends; how in autistic people the idea of essence is lost; a syndrome in which loss of perception leads a person to conclude he himself is dead; how even adults sleep with stuffed animals they associate with special times.
  • More general examples: feng shui; alternative medicine like homeopathy; astrology. “Wavelength” and “bad energy.”
  • Author concludes: go ahead and indulge in instilling objects with special qualities when it helps. They can be training wheels rather than a crutch. “When using objects with special associations, credence in contagion can increase confidence and enable one to persist at difficult tasks.” (I.e. it’s all mental, but we’re all subject to those same mental biases, so use them even knowing they’re just biases.) “Belief in the law of contagion makes the physical world glow with meaning and connects us to other people and to history. It makes the universe feel less inert, less sterile, less lonely.”

Ch2, Symbols Have Power: spells, ceremonies, and the law of similarity

  • Another kind of sympathetic magic, the law of similarity: things linked in the mind are presumed to have physical links.
  • Major example: how a construction worker at a sports coliseum planted a jersey of a rival team in the concrete. This so upset the home team, a year later, that they jack-hammered the concrete to find and remove the jersey.
  • Other examples: Voodoo; the odd idea of throwing darts at a picture of mom; Africans who refuse to be photographed; rules about not burning flags. Graphology, astrology, using plants that resemble body parts. Wiccan wisdom. Big gates at colleges. Wearing wedding rings. Others from musicians, advertising, hospital employees, taboo words and numbers.
  • “Because we think symbolically and associatively, we have the capacity and the compulsion to see everything as a representation of something else. And if we treat symbolic relationships as real, physical, ones, the universe becomes a web woven with invisible threads of influence mirroring our own associative networks. Human meaning then becomes a mediator of causality, and the whole world becomes magic.”
  • Conclusion: Photos and mementos can provide comfort; rituals can make us feel lucky and that we have control over the world. Symbols allow us to alter our expectations and interpretations of the world, give us a positive attitude.

Ch3, Actions Have Distant Consequences: using superstition to make luck work for you

  • Rituals and habits are attempts at control.
  • Leading example: Fishermen, being among the most dangerous of jobs, have many rituals and taboos. And they don’t like talking about hypothetical scenarios because it’s like asking them to happen.
  • Just as pigeons did in Skinner’s 1948 experiment did, humans can be ‘trained’ to develop superstitious. We repeat what seems to work, e.g. what we were doing when we got lucky. These are illusory correlations; we tend to count hits, even near hits, and ignore the misses: confirmation bias.
  • Other examples: athletes with their rituals; children who won’t step on sidewalk cracks; OCD patients.
  • Yet such superstitions can have genuine benefits: e.g. giving nursing home patients a plant to take care of, improves their health. Feeling lucky can give you an appetite for challenging tasks.
  • Yet overconfidence can have expensive consequences, as in stock market betting or buying lottery tickets.
  • On the other hand, when people know they have no control, they tend to give up. Depressed people seem to have a more accurate sense of their lack of control! [[ This is a crucial point analogous to autistics’ perception of the universe. ]]
  • Author concludes: everyone has little rituals, everyone is superstitious to a degree.

Ch4, The Mind Knows No Bounds: psychokinesis, ESP, and transcendence

  • We think our thoughts and prayers can, in effect, control matter at a distance. Why do we think these things?
  • Examples: how crowds cheer and pray for their teams; how people around the world send their best wishes to astronauts in space. But can doing such a thing actually matter?
  • Example of the bestselling book The Secret, with its “law of attraction,” in which “like attracts like”: picture what you want in life, and the universe will provide it for you. Your thoughts are the primary cause of everything. Yet the book’s resort to quantum mechanics is strained, and of course the idea is not falsifiable, there’s no way to test it; it’s “not even wrong.”
  • Almost everyone believes in free will, despite experiments that show the brain reacting some 150 ms before the subject is aware of making a decision (i.e. suggesting that free will is a delusion, that reality is deterministic). Yet – people who think this give into their urges, as if they can’t help themselves. Belief in free will reduces dishonesty, selfishness, and laziness.
  • [[ There’s an ongoing debate about whether we actually don’t have free will, or whether it’s useful to think that we do in some sense. Coyne, Harris, Rosenberg say we don’t. Yet these debates strike me as speaking to slightly different issues, as if those on each side are using words in slightly different manners. My take is, understanding that the world is best understood as layers of degrees of complexity, it makes perfect sense to assume we do have free will, at some level of meaning. ]]
  • The debate about free will is highly relevant to issues of crime and punishment; if people don’t have free will, they’re not “responsible” for their crimes and should not be punished, but rather rehabilitated or cured. Yet the idea of punishment is strong in our society, perhaps deriving from the eye-to-eye instinct from our evolution into a cooperative species.
  • People believe such things mostly because of personal experience involving coincidence; people don’t understand how with large samples, any outrageous thing is likely to happen; and again, we notice the hits and not the misses. Similarly with the idea that we can tell when someone is watching is. Confirmation bias.
  • Belief in ESP and PK leads to ideas of transcendence, of awe. Scientists feel it too, but by understanding how it derives from our predilections, it can lead us to science and not superstition. There are benefits of experiencing the wow factor even when not mystical.

Ch5, The Soul Lives On: death is not the end of us

  • Afterlife beliefs are nearly universal, despite evidence that the mind is the brain and cannot survive the brain’s death. Why are we in denial about death?
  • Examples of Ouija boards that supposedly communicate with the dead. Experiments with children (explored more thoroughly in later books by Jesse Bering and Andrew Shtulman) show they are “property dualists” and identify the mind as something different from the brain. This is related to the idea of free will, and in turn to the perception of cause and effect.
  • More examples: Soldiers who lose limbs but continue to feel they exist. Near-death experiences. People who go out in a blaze of glory, so to speak (i.e. of crime or suicide), suggests symbolic immorality, building of a legacy. Yet this is another kind of magical thinking. [[ at some point one can object to the word ‘thinking’ in all these examples, because people don’t hold these believes through active thinking about them; they behave in certain ways because people who don’t behave that way don’t reproduce, or don’t leave legacies, and so on. The ‘thinking’ is rationalization. ]]
  • Symbolic forms of immortality include raising children; achieving scientific, artistic, or athletic glory; putting one’s name on buildings.
  • The fact that we have bodies reminds us that we are not immortal souls; our bodies work the same as bodies of all other animals. We clothe and modify our bodies to minimize some of those reminders: making sex or eating pretty. But we can’t with defecation; thus bathroom stall doors and euphemisms.
  • Reminders of death make life more precious. The idea is to accept a manageable share of anxiety and to channel it toward building a heaven here on Earth.

Ch6, The World Is Alive: animals, objects, and gods are people, too

  • People see agency, the notion that something is alive, in everything—animals, clouds, gods. Hume recognized this 250 years ago. This is animism, anthropomorphism. We don’t grow out of it; we learn to correct for it. We see minds in things because we’ve evolved to see minds in people: the so-called “theory of mind,” apparent in babies early on.
  • Examples: a robot baby seal; dogs, who exhibit primary and secondary emotions; robots like AIBO and Roomba; how we get angry at laptops when they lose a file.
  • Xenophanes noted 2500 years ago that various races imagined gods in their image, and that horses and lions would probably do the same. We attribute human limitations and motives to the gods. We presume that god’s mind shares our personal beliefs.
  • There are three triggers for treating inanimate objects as agents: behavioral, morphological, and moral. That is, movement; the perception of faces, pareidolia (on Mars, in a grilled cheese sandwich); and punishing objects (e.g. statues or bells) when bad things happen, as if some agent must be responsible.
  • The perception of agency is error management. It’s better to overestimate the probability that someone wishes do us doing harm—this may be a factor in the evolution of religion. Thus the supernatural judge in the sky; belief in God is useful because God enforces morality.
  • Another motivation is that humans need to belong; and so we imagine the world around us is full of agents. One study showed that people with isolated backgrounds were more likely to turn to God, or believe in miracles and curses. Pets improve the health of the patients in veterans’ homes.
  • Summary and warning: We even treat unintentional acts as intentional, in other people: we think they do everything on purpose. This can result in misunderstandings and anger. This also has applications in dealing with children, the mentally ill, damaged or elderly brains, and fetuses. And the opposite of anthropomorphism is dehumanization. We sometimes attribute more rights to animals than to our enemies.

Ch7, Everything Happens for a Reason: you’ve got a date with destiny

  • We all want to think we’re part of a grand plan, that things were *meant* to happen, that everything happens for a reason.
  • Example: a woman who became infertile and desolate that it was the end of their lines. Later she adopted, and came to believe her two boys were “destined.”
  • We infer the existence of God through the order of the world: the clock analogy, the grandeur of organic life. Children are intuitive theists. We perceive a world of causes and effects, goals and intents; “things happen” isn’t good enough. Turtles all the way down: for some reason God doesn’t need an explanation. Evidence of design is illusory; example of plotting bomb landings in WWII London. We perceive clusters in random data, and imbue them with significance. We are biased to detect order in the world, and to think order is created by agents.
  • Compulsive pattern finding can be schizophrenia, magical thinking, or even creativity.
  • Improbable events seem intentional, yet we can understand the butterfly effect, how tiny changes at the beginning lead to very different outcomes. We define ourselves through narratives, and we revise our histories to make better stories; the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
  • Thus some people see suffering as part of God’s plan. We look for explanations for disasters–to acts of God. Those who most suffer have highest belief in God. Also: the “just-world theory” (or fallacy), a belief in fairness, leads to blaming the victim.
  • The danger is fatalism, thinking someone will always save you, and then not taking care of yourself, e.g. through vaccinations.
  • Rejecting the idea that things are “meant” to happen makes you an existentialist. You’re free to do whatever you want. Some people find this terrifying. It’s like the tyranny of freedom, the way having so many choices in life makes some people less happy, more depressed.
  • The solution is that each person creates his own meaning, values, and destiny. It’s not nihilism, or fatalism; nothing that happens is inherently good or bad, it just is. We can change our own perspectives to make the best of circumstances. This is wisdom.

Epilogue: The World Is Sacred: a stab at a secular spirituality

  • We’re all magical thinkers, but many of our illusions are positive. They provide a sense of control, which reduces anxiety; they provide meaning, which allows for control, and a sense of purpose.
  • To escape the anxiety of wondering, Is that all there is? What’s the point?, experience the sacred. It’s a feeling of being connected to something larger than yourself. It’s the opposite of being cynical—knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Sanctification is linked to various positive behaviors. The world becomes imbued with a deep significance. Meditation is one route. (Author tried it but it didn’t work for him.) Perhaps the sacred is in everyday life. Thinking about how ordinary things might be sacred.
  • Meaningful lives include a balanced combination of short-term and long-term goals. Pursue the state called ‘flow.’
  • Being busy helps people endure almost any circumstances. Being in the right mood, or taking the right drugs, makes goals desirable, and then meaning is there for you to create.
  • Can we consider everyday things a miracle? Yes: think of mortality; a lack of fate increases a sense of meaning. All reality is free entertainment.
  • Don’t dismiss the scientist for robbing things of their marvel; a scientist sees more, not less. [[ Yes; this is precisely Dawkins’ theme in Unweaving the Rainbow. ]]
  • Magical thinking connects the familiar, the unknown, and the unknowable. Magical thinking got us to where we are, and will take us to where we’re going. We think, therefore we think magically. Yet this balance of critical thinking and enchantment may not be right for everyone.


General comments:

I wish the author had been more specific about in advising readers how to *use* these biases to one’s own advantage. They’re summarized in a page or so at the end of each chapter, or presumed to be apparent.

Still, the theme is crucial – how we recognize the ways in which we think are not ‘accurate’, not about ‘reality’, but exist for survival value – yet at the same time, we can *think around* these biases in order to perceive an ‘actual’ reality, however unpleasant it might seem. This is what science fiction helps us to imagine.

But the book’s point is that you don’t want to escape magical beliefs entirely, or you will lose purpose and meaning. It doesn’t say to give up and give in either. I think the balance is to understand why these illusions exist, and to simultaneously interact with the universe as it actually is.

He mentions the ‘law of truly large numbers’ – this is what I’m trying to pin down in my rule about people not understanding vast stretches of time or space.


For years I’ve recalled the line I just used about “thinking around the problem” – that is, understanding biases and, through conscious, critical thinking, understand why those biases exist and to distinguish them from what we can understand is real – and haven’t remembered where I heard or read it.

Coincidentally, just a few days ago, as I had planned to post this summary, the identification of the phrase came to me. It’s an REM song, “Fall on Me,” an early song with one of those almost creepy, steadily amplified melodies.

We have found a way to talk around the problem.

This is what all these books about perceptual biases are about: identifying how humans, evolved over millions of years to survive rather than perceiving reality accurately, can think around those biases, and understand what is real, and not what we imagine reality to be.

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