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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 3

MIND Reviews: The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

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Hudson Street Press

LOGIC OF LUCK

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane
by Matthew Hutson. Hudson Street Press, 2012 ($25.95)

We evolved to be self-aware, to know that we exist. Science journalist Hutson argues that this adaptation came at a price: we cannot imagine our own nonexistence. In his new book, he writes that our self-awareness causes us to search for meaning in life and to cling to the idea that we must be here for a reason. That is where our superstitious musings begin.

Hutson combines compelling anecdotes with psychological studies to show that mystical thoughts--feelings of awe, luck, superstition or fate--underlie many human behaviors. For example, people often engage in magical thinking after they experience a near miss or eerie coincidence. Surviving a car accident unscathed frames the event in a different, positive light: it could have been worse.

Research supports the notion that we often rationalize surprising or unlikely events with magical thinking. In one experiment, investigators divided two roulette wheels into either three or 18 spaces colored red, blue or yellow and told participants that they would win every time the ball landed on a red space. The subjects had the same one-in-three chance of winning with either wheel but perceived hitting a red to be more difficult on the 18-space game because those spaces appeared to be closer to a yellow or blue. Believing they had defeated steeper odds by winning on the 18-space wheel made the participants feel luckier.

Coincidences can also incline us toward thoughts of fate. Hutson describes a married couple who stumbled on an old photograph from the wife's childhood. Although the two did not know each other as children, they were pictured together simply by chance. Hutson explains that instead of disconnecting us from reality, magical thoughts--such as luck allowed me to survive the crash or fate pulled me toward my soul mate--actually help us rationalize life's mysteries.

However far-fetched it sounds to a scientific mind, magical thinking might bestow significance on our otherwise seemingly arbitrary lives.

This article was originally published with the title "MIND Reviews: The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking."

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