Why Everyone Believes in Magic (Even You)
Posted by Xeno on April 17, 2012
Natalie Wolchover – Even the most die-hard skeptics among us believe in magic. Humans can’t help it: though we try to be logical, irrational beliefs — many of which we aren’t even conscious of — are hardwired in our psyches. But rather than hold us back, the unavoidable habits of mind that make us think luck and supernatural forces are real, that objects and symbols have power, and that humans have souls and destinies are part of what has made our species so evolutionarily successful. Believing in magic is good for us.
That’s what psychology writer Matthew Hutson argues in his new book, “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking” (Hudson Street Press, 2012), released Thursday (April 12). Hutson scoured decades of research by psychologists in order to identify the supernatural beliefs we all naturally share, and to discover why the tendencies evolved in the first place. Here’s the proof that you — yes, you — engage in what Hutson calls “magical thinking,” and why.
Mojo and cooties
In a 2008 auction, an anonymous bidder spent $5,300 for actress Scarlet Johansson’s snotty handkerchief. While most people wouldn’t waste their savings on soiled celebrity memorabilia, Hutson said almost everyone is guilty of attaching undue significance to objects associated with people they idealize. We generally agree that John Lennon’s famous white piano is more valuable than an identical piano with no notable origin, for instance, and we would much rather wear our best friend’s jacket than the jacket of a serial killer, even if both garments have been thoroughly cleaned. Why do we intuitively think objects carry people’s essences?
Scientists think the gut feeling evolved in our ancestors as a primitive method of germ avoidance. “The theory is that belief in essences is based on our fear of germs and tainted substances,” Hutson told Life’s Little Mysteries. “We didn’t always know what germs were, of course, but it made sense to be aware of whether someone sick touched your food before you ate it, or wore a jacket before you did. It makes sense to be wary of an object’s provenance, because the evolution of that sense would have increased a person’s chance of survival.”
Not knowing how germs worked, our awareness of the history of our food, clothing and other objects generalized to include positive associations as well as negative ones. We evolved the belief that not just cooties, but positive mojo, too, can rub off on us. …