Last night at the Chicago Humanities Festival we saw Eric Oliver, a professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, who gave a talk about American magical thinking. He sets up a dichotomy between what he calls “tangible” and “symbolic” thinking, which is best exemplified by a survey he describes, in which respondents are asked whether they would rather stab a photo of their family four times or stick their hand in a jar of slimy worms. Or spend the night in a beautiful house in which a family had been murdered versus spend the night in a seedy bus station. Would you rather wear pajamas that belonged to Charles Manson or pick up a nickel from the street and put it in your mouth?
The gist of these questions is probably clear. The first items in these pairs are symbolically (and negatively) resonant but don’t cause actual harm, while the second items carry real risk. Oliver found that people who consistently choose to avoid the symbolic negative resonance (and bear the real risk) tend to have other magical beliefs, such as beliefs in angels, conspiracy theories, the idea that we are living in biblical end-times, or the healing power of crystals.
Oliver connects his work to that of Daniel Kahneman, who, in his Thinking, Fast and Slow describes how we frequently use cognitive shortcuts that lead to wrong results. For example, if a ball and bat together cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much is the ball?
Did you come up with 10 cents? Think again.
Similarly, if the asking price of a house is $400,000 we tend to believe its value is something around that, but the asking price is not relevant to its value. Determining value from scratch, though, is very difficult question. Starting with the asking price is a convenient shortcut, even if we are effectively answering a different (easier) question.
Oliver traces the surprising post-enlightenment persistence of magical beliefs to uncertainty—which he sees as always at the root of magical thinking. For example, a tribal fishing culture he discussed had few magical beliefs around river fishing, which they understood very well; however, there was a whole set of magical beliefs arranged around deep-sea fishing, which was fraught with dangers and offered uncertain rewards.
Magical thinking, then, is a kind of cognitive shortcut we use when we are uncertain or uncomfortable. While this explains particular beliefs—for example, uncertainty and discomfort about the finality of death leads some to believe in reincarnation—it’s not as clear how such beliefs are effectively tackled. Indeed, Oliver was asked that question and didn’t have a good answer.
Because we have a political discourse that is plagued by magical thinking and the denial of science, this is very troubling.