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The Need for Fantastical Beliefs

Magical thinking offers comfort from a scary world that seems unfair.

Key points

  • The paranoia regarding the interrelatedness of unrelated events underlies conspiracy theories.
  • The power of positive thinking or prayer are popular examples of magical thinking.

It all begins during childhood, probably long before we first heard about Santa Claus. Childhood is frightening. Being a little child in a world of giants and unexplainable events is scary. Children resort to magical thinking in order to feel more in control of things that they have no way of managing. Children develop ritual practices, such as avoiding cracks to save mom’s back, or magical beliefs, such as a friend that only they can see, that can offer a sense of comfort in an unpredictable world.

This safe approach to dealing with a strange world usually continues into adulthood where we discover that others have developed their own magical rituals and beliefs. For example, the power of positive thinking or prayer.

The power of positive thinking or prayer are popular examples of magical thinking. There’s no scientific evidence to support the idea that prayer or thinking good thoughts can cure any problem. Of course, staying positive does help to manage the consequences of daily life. Thinking that your own deity might decide to save you does usually improve one’s outlook on the problem if not the problem itself.

Magical thinking can have drawbacks. Avoiding science-based treatments in favor of magical thinking can have serious consequences, especially if you’re dealing with a life-threatening health issue, such as the risk of COVID. In spite of the drawbacks, given the decisions of so many people to avoid vaccination, the only conclusion is that human evolution selected for a brain that has the ability to accept a logically absurd world of supernatural causes and beings that is the hallmark of magical thinking.

In 2011, seventy-seven percent of Americans believed in angels. By 2019, the percentage had dropped significantly. One third of us still believe in ghosts. Magical beliefs about ghosts and angels must offer something tangible that enhanced our survival. Most magical thinking leads to the conclusion that everything happens for a reason.

We are a suspicious species because it has survival value. That feature of our brain leads to paranoia, which is a safety mechanism for when things happen that have no obvious explanation. The paranoia regarding the inter-relatedness of unrelated events underlies conspiracy theories. We tend to believe that random events are intentional and related even if there is no evidence to support such a belief.

The human brain is capable of retaining an unprovable idea, such as magic or angels, even when presented with rational and substantial evidence that it is wrong. This resilience to accepting fact over fiction is probably as ancient as the Homo sapiens brain. Belief in magic brought comfort in a scary world where events seemed out of their control. The same is true for conspiracy theories. The claims must be repeated over and over again. No matter how unbelievable the details might sound, the believers accept the lies as fact and, most importantly, act as though the details are all true.

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