Cognitive Daily

Who believes in magic?

The New York Times has an article filled with some interesting anecdotes about the prevalence of magical thinking. Everyone, it seems, even college grads hoping to be admitted into graduate school, has a few superstitions.

Let’s face it: magic is fun. At the University of Chicago, there was a superstition that stepping on the brass college seal embedded in the floor of Hutchinson Commons would cause students to take longer than four years to graduate. When I graduated, diploma in hand, I had a friend take my photo standing on the plaque. When I processed the picture, the bottom half was obscured by mysterious aura. I’d post the photo here, but in the intervening 18 years, the picture has (magically?) disappeared.

Experimental evidence, the Times article points out, reveals that most adults retain some magical beliefs:

Yet in a series of experiments published last summer, psychologists at Princeton and Harvard showed how easy it was to elicit magical thinking in well-educated young adults. In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots.

On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success. A comparison group of participants, who had been instructed to visualize the player lifting dumbbells, was far less likely to claim such credit.

We’ve discussed a similar series of experiments on Cognitive Daily:

Who believes in magic?
Who still believes in magic?

Oh, and what might have caused that “aura” on the photo? It might have been magic, but I’m placing my bets on the x-ray machine at the airport I put my camera through before my flight home.


  1. #1 johnshade
    January 24, 2007

    Hmm. I wonder if we are hard-wired for magical thinking as a “shortcut” for inductive reasoning, and if OCD (from which an immediate family member of mine suffers) is just that hard-wiring in hyperdrive.

  2. #2 David Group
    January 24, 2007

    Unfortunately, as science progresses at an ever-accelerating rate and science instruction at most schools gets progressively worse (at least, in the US, anyway), more and more people will fall back on magical thinking as a way to attempt to gain control of an increasingly chaotic world. Look at how many people think buying lottery tickets is a good investment strategy, or who think there is more evidence for creationism (oops, I’m sorry, “intelligent design”) than there is for evolution.

  3. #3 Oldfart
    January 25, 2007

    As the reporter wrote: Magic is fun! I prefer to believe that fireflies are magical creatures because it is more fun even tho I know what they are. OTH, science has it’s own magic – string theory for instance……

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