Did you know your brain is so good at finding patterns that it can sometimes make up ones that don’t exist?
This is the result of a Cognitive Bias called Magical Thinking, which refers to the tendency of the human brain to make associations between unrelated events.
Many of the most common examples come from the realm of superstition, but there is a very real reason our brains work this way and it has to do with why humans have survived as long as we have.
Survival Of The … Weakest?
Picture the first humans: wandering the plains of Africa, trying not to fall prey to the many dangers of their environment.
The wildlife alone is incredibly dangerous, full of sharp claws and teeth, never mind the many poisonous plants and fruits.
In order to survive, what did the humans have going for them?
- Sharp claws of their own? Nope.
- Teeth? Barely.
- Sense of smell? Wimpy.
- Tough, protective skin? Ha!
- Strong stomach, impervious to poison? Not even close.
Pattern-Matching Prowess: An Evolutionary Advantage?
So how the heck did we survive? The answer is of course our brain, but how? Why?
One of the things our brains can do really well is detect patterns in our environment and remember them later, which helps us adapt to our environment incredibly fast.
This gave us a huge evolutionary advantage:
- Should I eat these berries? No: my friend got sick eating them yesterday.
- That bush just moved, should I run? Yes: last time I saw a bush move like that a tiger jumped out.
- Should I sleep on the ground or in a tree? In a tree: my brother got eaten while sleeping on the ground.
This pattern-matching ability helped keep us alive against the odds.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Imagine you get to decide how strong our pattern-matching ability will be, but you can’t know what the exact right setting is.
- What would you choose?
- How strong do you make it?
Remember, if it’s too weak we get eaten and never make it to enjoy Angry Birds.
If you’re like me, you would err on the side of caution and make the ability pretty strong. Possibly it would be too strong, but better safe than sorry, right?
That’s more or less what happened: our tendency to find patterns in our environment is so strong, erring on the side of caution, that we end up finding patterns that don’t exist … and thus was born Magical Thinking.
Magical Thinking: Seeing What Isn’t There
What are some examples of our brain finding patterns that aren’t there?
- Is it bad luck to walk under a ladder?
- Does blowing on dice before rolling them change the odds?
- Step on a crack, break your mother’s back?
- Is there really a dance that will cause it to rain?
- Can a shirt or pair of socks bring luck?
Maintaining a Healthy Skepticism
In most cases you can tell when you have a belief or ritual that probably isn’t rational.
One of mine is that I nod whenever I get a green light while driving as a way to ‘thank’ the light for allowing me to pass quickly.
I know this makes no rational sense but I tend to do it anyway, especially when I am thinking about other things at the same time. I don’t remember when I started doing this but I can imagine that at some point I did it and ended up getting what seemed like more green lights than normal, resulting in yet another irrational ritual.
When I catch myself doing it I tend to chide myself, immediately knowing I’ve done something silly, and I find that for a short time I stop doing it.
Sometimes simply naming an act or belief as irrational can help your thinking.
Is a Little Magic Also Healthy?
Does this mean the goal is to eliminate all Magical Thinking from your thoughts?
Some studies have shown that people that are complete skeptics tend toward depression. Quite simply, people with no Magical Thinking are also unable to experience pleasure.
So like most things, Magical Thinking falls into a sliding scale and the goal is to be Goldilocks:
- Too Much: Lots of irrational beliefs and rituals resulting in poor decisions.
- Too Little: Life has no pleasure, all choices seem moot, resulting in poor decisions.
- Just Right: You have irrational beliefs and rituals but see them for what they are, resulting in better overall thinking.
Controlling Your Own Magic
What about you?
- What magical thoughts do you have?
- Are you able to recognize them as irrational?