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Magical Thinking

Thinking patterns that ignore causal relationships of reality.

Magical Thinking is a group of unrealistic thinking patterns some people use to explain the world. The common similarity of this type of thinking is that the explanation ignores the actual cause and effect of reality, as it is known by science and logic, and can be observed by other people who are not engaged in Magical Thinking.

Magical Thinking is a belief that one event happens as a result of another without any plausible link of causation, or to put it differently: it's believing in things more strongly than either evidence or experience justifies.

Many of us engage in Magical Thinking, and such activity is not always harmful. Magical Thinking is normal in children, or it can be even desirable in professional creative people.

Magical Thinking becomes harmful, when this thinking bug starts to control us, lowers our quality of life, prevents us from reaching our potential, or causes other similar harm. Below are presented examples of potentially harmful Magical Thinking.

Over-Worrying and Over-Thinking

Many anxious people tend to believe that constantly worrying about something can prevent a catastrophe.

"The patient has the superstitious belief that the anxiety, although uncomfortable, protects him or her from some terrible catastrophe." – Dr. David D. Burns

The person believes that if he or she is not constantly worrying about something, bad things will happen. Being stuck in such Magical Thinking, the individual self-sabotages his or her own well-being by believing that anxiety is a form of protection. Such behavior is like a ritual or a bad habit, which creates a temporary relief but is harmful in the long-run.

Anxiety can be beneficial when we know how to use it and not being in the worrying mode all the time. When worrying constantly, such activity consumes our mental energy, weakens the mind, and then it may fail to perceive real dangers, because being constantly busy in its internal monologue, the mind has no time and attention left for real-life situations.

To benefit from anxiety, instead of worrying all the time on auto-pilot, we need to listen to the clues that our anxiety presents, and then plan ahead constructively. For example, if you are going to have a complicated trip, and you are worrying that there will be a lot of stress or some bad things will happen, a reasonable step would be to plan ahead everything and prepare yourself for the trip as best as possible, instead of worrying all the time about the unknowns but actually not doing anything.

Superstitions

Superstitions and believing in the supernatural also fall under the category of Magical Thinking.

For example, in some cultures, many people believe that it's a bad sign if a black cat crosses a street, while there is no actual evidence that this is true.

While some superstitions are harmless, others can misguide us, waste a lot of our time and energy, create unnecessary conflicts.

Rituals

Individuals who engage in Magical Thinking, attach special significance to numbers, places, events, or symbols. They believe that by doing some kind of a ritual, they can prevent bad things from happening to themselves or others. They often keep these ideas to themselves, hidden from other people.

Wishful Thinking and Leaps of Logic

Magical thinkers construct their thinking in a way that resembles logical thought, although usually there are missing steps in such a thought. By being attached to the desired end-result, a person ignores cause and effect relationships and fills the gaps with irrational and unrealistic ideas.

It can often be a defense mechanism against traumatic events, some kind of a loss, or something that scares the individual. It can be hard to accept reality the way it is, so instead, the person engages in unrealistic wishful thinking.

The Fallacy of Fairness

Some individuals believe that things should work out according to what they think is fair or according to storylines from popular books or movies.

The understanding that reality is neither fair nor unfair, that it is indifferent and we are free to create our own meaning, is a good starting point that empowers us to build a truly meaningful life.

"Paradox as it may seem, we likewise find life meaningful only when we have seen that it is without purpose, and know the ‘mystery of the universe’ only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all." – The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan W. Watts

If Only...

Another form of Magical Thinking is believing that everything would be better If Only the individual were thinner, smarter, richer, got a new job, etc.

The error is in the fact that such a person is ignoring the current reality and instead concentrating on a fantasy where everything can better if only this or that. This type of thinking can make us unproductive, lazy, depressed.

If life's situation is unchangeable, acceptance of the situation is the right thing to do, and if the situation can be changed, we can choose to try to change it by actively working towards our goals.

Control Tendencies

On one extreme, individuals believe in absolute free will and assume that achievements or failures are direct results of their individual actions. Another extreme is a belief that everything is pre-destined, or it's God's will, and we are powerless.

The reality is more complex and nuanced than these basic assumptions. We are neither all-powerful nor powerless, as there are many different influences, causes and effects that are out of our control, but also many things that depend upon our individual choices.

The truth lies somewhere in between. By understanding how strongly we are influenced by our past, our environment, and other things that are out of our control, we actually become more free and wiser in our choices.

Fear of Thinking

The belief that just by thinking about the thought, it will materialize.

It is true that by thinking about a particular thing, we can increase the likelihood of that thing becoming a reality. This phenomenon comes under different names, such as "selective attention", "law of attraction", "self-fulfilling prophecy", and can be strengthened through affirmations and "fake until you make it" approach. This works for both positive and negative thoughts, and that's why some people are extremely fearful about being open-minded, or they experience fear and anxiety when a negative thought comes uninvited.

Accepting the existence of thought, even if it's negative, allowing it to be, and knowing that the though is not the same as action, will let the thought to "dance its dance", and then it will subside and pass away if it has no value to us. Alternatively, if we try to avoid a thought at any cost, this avoidance can make the thought stronger, because by actively trying to avoid the thought, we are also actively thinking about it.

The understanding that the thought is not the same as the action allows us to be aware of the field of different possible scenarios about the future. By seeing a wide range of possibilities, we can get insights from negative scenarios but aim for the best possible future outcomes.

Additionally, the acceptance of thought, without the need to act on it, creates a space between the thought and the action, where we have the power to choose our reaction instead of reacting automatically.

How to fix Magical Thinking bugs

When spotted, Magical Thinking bugs can be fixed similarly to other thinking errors, with the help of the CBT app.

Finally, if you have fixed all your bugs and took control of your thinking, you can now use Magical Thinking together with some other types of thinking bugs to increase productivity and creativity, to make your life more interesting and colorful, or to benefit in some other ways, e.g. to write a book or engage in creative activity, to start a business, to help others to challenge their negative thoughts and to improve their quality of life.