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The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane

Matthew Hutson

In April 2009, the owners of Yankee Stadium dug up the concrete to find a Red Sox jersey that a construction worker had buried there. The president of the NY Yankees demanded compensation from the worker for the costs of the removal. The jersey obviously posed no structural threat to the stadium, but that didn't stop people worrying about a hex or magic that would affect their luck.

We all find magical significance in the world around us. We all have objects - a wedding ring, a family heirloom, an autographed item - that we value far more than an identical duplicate. Do you believe in karma, that what goes round, comes round? Magical thinking. Do you yell at your computer when it doesn't do what you want? Magical thinking.

Again, we have two ways of thinking. The intuitive system is quick, automatic, and emotive. The rational system is slow, deliberate, and logical. We have the first system to thank for our magical thinking.

First example is John Lennon's battered old upright piano on which he composed 'Imagine'. George Michael bought it for $2 million and sent it on a national tour. Everyone who played it said they felt some 'essence' of JL attached to it.

Even a professional skeptic such as Richard Dawkins described being in museum where handled some of Charles Darwin's (stuffed) pigeons and said had "a very weird feeling" and that the most precious book in his collection was a first edition of Origin of the Species.

Law of contagion. We think that things have a magical connection to a past owner. Given a disinfected and sterilized hairbrush, most people willing to use it if came from a friend or relative, but not if it came from a sworn enemy. But depends what it is - we might pay for Einstein's pen or bit of chalk, but not for his toilet seat. And organ transplant patients assume that they have got some of the donor's personality - the non-drinking woman who suddenly decided she wanted a beer after she got a heart from a truck driver. Study where half group of amateur golfers on a putting green were told that the putter they were using came from ( ) PGA player, sank nearly 40% more putts than control group.

Release ceremonies. People get cold feet before weddings - deep sense of what they're losing. One way to overcome is to write out a list of all the things you're losing and then burn it. Also known as 'metaphor therapy' - write down things that bother you - regretted decisions, unsatisfied desires, trauma from a loss - and put in an envelope and seal it.

Retirement home 2 groups. First told "This is yr home to do with what you want. Rearrange the furniture. Read or watch TV. Oh and here's a plant to look after." Control group told "This is yr home and we're going to look after you and keep you happy. Here's a plant and we're going to look after that too." 18 months later 30% control group had died vs 15% of the first group.

Elevators have 'Close Door' button. But if it was built in last 20 years it isn't connected to anything. Just there to calm you down a bit. It's a bit like prayer - need that illusion of control to distract you from realizing yr in a box supported by a few cables dangling over a pit.

We have ideas that are "not even wrong". That is, you believe them no matter what happens. 'Law of attraction' as an example (basically "Your wishes will come true"). If they don't then "you just didn't wish right". If there is no possible piece of evidence that could prove the idea wrong, it isn't falsifiable. Science insists that a concept be testable - if there is no experiment that can prove something wrong, then there is no way of knowing whether it is right or wrong.

Why do we believe we have a soul. Part of it obviously is the deep desire not to be dead. But also perhaps because we think about others even when not present. We don't delete their file; don't assume they've ceased to exist. Even when their bodies die, we can still keep up a conversation with them in our minds. So we see the afterlife a realm where people retain their personalities and human form, perhaps with a wings upgrade.

If we really thought of the dead as defunct vehicles abandoned at the side of the road, we'd dispose of them without ceremony. Instead we put them in their Sunday suit and bury them under a fancy headstone which we then periodically visit.

Throughout history, gods have been just augmented humans - they eat, drink, fight, make love and war, just on a bigger canvas. Contemporary Western religions make more of an effort to separate God from the riff-raff, giving him supernatural omniscience and omnipotence. But we don't stick to that consistently - think of God having to finish dealing with one prayer before dealing with the next - basically a superhero with limited bandwidth.

Paro the seal - a robot animal for trauma victims unwilling to trust human therapist. We know little about what a seal meant to look like so avoid problem of 'uncanny valley' which plagues human or animal replicants. Provides unconditional acceptance.

Evo has programmed us to suspect agents - that something/someone is responsible for everything that happens. Paranoia just an extreme version of this - belief that everything has a connection, a significance. We know that dopamine responsible for magical thinking. Levodopa, a drug used to treat Parkinson's disease, is converted to dopamine in the body, and leads to psychosis. Drugs that block dopamine reduce delusions and out-of-control thinking in schizophrenia patients.

In life we have to decide what is changeable and what isn't. Once you've decided that something can't be changed, don't look back, just get on with life.

Einstein: "There are two ways to live yr life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is if everything is a miracle."

The following is an excerpt from The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking (pp88 - 90)

There are certain laws of nature everyone accepts. The surest way to bring about rain on an overcast day is to leave your umbrella at home. Is your line at the grocery store moving too slowly? Switch lines. That will definitely speed it up (minus you). And if you’ve hit a series of green traffic lights that just might get you to the post office before it closes, comment on your string of success. Ah, there’s the red.

Do people really believe such actions can change their fortunes?

In recent years Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell have shed more light than anyone on the phenomenon of tempting fate. When they asked people to answer rationally whether exchanging a lottery ticket for another ticket would increase the chances of their old ticket winning, 90 percent said no. But when asked to answer the same question using their gut, 46 percent said yes. (Subjects thought selling the ticket to an enemy gave it the best chance of winning.) In another experiment, people said wearing a Stanford shirt after applying to the school would reduce the probability of admission.

Risen and Gilovich argue that belief in tempting fate rests, in part, on a three-step mental process. First, some behaviors make outcomes seem especially bad because they highlight the contrast between what happened and what almost happened. Being stuck in a slow grocery line feels worse if you switched into that line than if you were always in that line, because you were just in a faster line. Second, negative scenarios engage our imagination more than positive ones (as they should: a fish can feed a man for a day, but a blowfish can kill him for a lifetime). So if you’re thinking about switching lines, the thought of switching to a line that then slows down is worse than the thought of staying in a slow line, and therefore it looms larger in your head. Finally, the more you think about something, the more likely it seems.

To summarize the three-step process, negative outcomes would feel worse after tempting fate, which makes their possibility especially attention-grabbing, and thus more likely-seeming. Sounds like a rickety series of cognitive contraptions requiring a lot of effort to execute, but it’s completely automatic. In fact, Risen and Gilovich found that asking subjects to count backward by threes from 564—a cognition-hogging task—made them more likely to believe showing up to class without doing the reading would get them called on.

Tempting fate usually refers to one of two things: taking unnecessary risks or displaying hubris. Attempting to cheat death or showing presumption about success will inevitably invite rebuke. As a proverb says, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

During the 2001 anthrax scare, a reporter for the Washington Post called up Scott Ian, a guitarist for the thrash-metal band Anthrax. “People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if you got anthrax?’ ” he told the reporter. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’d be hilarious.’ ” To be on the safe side, he filled a prescription for the antibiotic Cipro. “I will not die an ironic death,” he said.

“The universe seems interested not only in punishing certain behaviors but in punishing them a certain, ironic way,” Risen and Gilovich have written. We predict that negative outcomes will share some association with their antecedent—they’ll fit the crime. Therefore, wearing a Stanford T-shirt will have no effect on the weather, and carrying an umbrella will have no effect on school admissions. And naming your act Anthrax offers no reason to stock up on, say, Rogaine. (Naming your thrash-metal band Male Pattern Baldness, on the other hand...)

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A predictable way to invite failure is to call attention to success. In one study conducted at Tulane, 48 percent of medical residents avoided the word quiet while on call for fear that all hell would break loose. You can even jinx other people this way. Some families in Azerbaijan seclude infants and their mothers for forty days after birth to make sure no one compliments the parents.

Risen and Gilovich argue that thinking about the positive (a streak) automatically calls to mind its flipside (the streak’s end), which then takes mental priority and thus seems more likely. They also note that we fail to appreciate regression to the mean. Nearly every game of baseball fails to become a no-hitter, but the act of saying, “We’ve got a no-hitter on our hands” sticks out and gives people something specific to blame.

Once you’ve tempted fate, there’s at least one way to make amends, to tell fate, Really, I take it all back. Giora Keinan of Tel Aviv University asked subjects a series of questions such as “Has anyone in your immediate family suffered from lung cancer?” Half the participants spontaneously knocked on wood at least once after answering.

Purchasing insurance is another way people attempt to deter fate and reduce the likelihood of an accident. Orit Tykocinski of the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel asked people to imagine going on a trip to Bangkok with or without insurance. The insured group rated the probability of illness or lost luggage lower than the other group did. Tykocinski argues that thinking about one’s insurance provides an overall sense of safety that makes negative hypothetical events less threatening and thus seem less probable.

Risen and Gilovich note that going against any superstition, no matter how silly, can feel like tempting fate because of the anticipated regret of misfortune after flouting conventional wisdom. Allowing anticipated regret to influence your judgments of objective probability is irrational, but the psychologists Dale Miller and Brian Taylor have argued that it’s not irrational to let anticipated regret affect your behavior. Regret is real. So if you’d feel worse falling into a pothole after walking under a ladder than after walking around the ladder, by all means, take the few extra steps to walk around. You won’t regret it.

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