Here at Mixing Memory, Just Science week has turned into Mostly Wegner week. But the set of studies I’m going to talk about in this post has received so much attention that I just can’t resist. You may have encountered it in the New York Times (you can read it here without a subscription). Unfortunately for me, in beating me to it, the NYT also stole my planned title, causing me to go with Barry Manilow over Lovin’ Spoonful, but c’est la vie. Oh, I should probably say what this is all about at some point. It’s about magic. Specifically, magical thinking. We’ve all experienced it (don’t say you haven’t!) at some point. I know I still experience magical thinking occasionally while watching my favorite college basketball team. If I’m watching a game, and they’re losing, I will change the channel. A part of me actually believes that this will somehow change the fortunes of my beloved team. Sometimes it works, too. After several minutes, I’ll turn the game back on, and find that my team has rallied. Magical powers confirmed; go ________!
While I’m fairly confident in asserting that everyone reading this experiences magical thinking now and then, I’m also pretty sure that most of you don’t actually believe in magic, and any magical thoughts you might experience are dismissed pretty quickly. But why do even intelligent, generally rational people who are well aware that magic is something for fairy tales and children’s birthday parties, and nothing more, experience magical thinking? The answer is probably pretty complex, as magical thinking likely relies on several aspects of ordinary cognition. For example, thinking about an event makes us more likely to notice such events. It’s pretty easy to then believe, even if only for a moment, that such events occur more frequently when you think about them. This perceived covariance then makes apparent mental causation likely.
What is apparent mental causation? It’s just what its name says. Apparent mental causation occurs when people think about something, it happens, and then believe that thinking about it caused it. Dan Wegner and his colleagues (e.g., in his fun little book, The Illusion of Conscious Will), inspired by research on physical causation, have focused on three causes of apparent mental causation. These are1:
- Priority: This one might also be called something like temporal precedence. We tend to believe that causes precede their effects, and that they do so “in a timely manner.” That is, causes tend to occur just before their effects. So if one physical event occurs just prior to another, then we’re likely to consider it a potential cause of the second event. In the mental realm, if we think about an event (say, moving our leg) just before it occurs, then the thought becomes a potential cause of that event.
- Conistency: We also believe that causes tend to be consistent, or associated with their effects. For thoughts, this means that if I think about moving my leg, and my leg moves, that thought is a potential cause of the movement, but if I think about moving my arm, and my leg moves, then the thought is not a potential cause.
- Exclusivity: The final cause (not in the Aristotelian sense, just in the order of presentation) of apparent mental causation works with the first two. If a thought occurs just before an event, and the thought is consistent with that event, it’s a potential cause. But in order for us to decide that it is the actual cause, the thought needs to be the only perceived possible cause of the event. So, if I think about moving my leg, and then my leg moves, but I also notice that the person sitting next to me has pushed my leg, I probably won’t decide that my thinking about moving my leg caused my leg to move.
Wegner has tested these causal principles in some pretty ingenious experiments. For example, in one task, participants sat at a computer screen with headphones on and their hands on a board that controlled the mouse. Across from them sat a confederate (an experimenter disguised as a participant) who wasn’t wearing earphones, but who did have his or her hand on the board. Participants observed the cursor moving to a word on the screen either before or after hearing a word in their earphones. In each trial, the confederate is the one who actually moved the mouse so that the cursor would end up on the word. However, if after the participant heard a word, the cursor ended up on that word, the participant tended to believe that he or she caused it to do so (priority). Since the confederate didn’t have earphones on, and therefore couldn’t have heard the word, participants didn’t believe they could have caused the movement (exclusivity). If the cursor ended up on a word other than the one the participant heard in the earphones, they did not believe they had caused it to move (consistency)2.
In a paper published at the end of last year, Pronin et al. (with Wegner being one of the et al.’s)3 argue that these mental causation principles can help to explain magical thinking. If I think about something (say, my team winning) just before it happens (Go ________!), and there’s no other obvious explanation for this occurrence (say my team was a big underdog, and there’s no conceivable non-magical reason why they could possibly have won), then I’m likely to believe, if only for a moment, that my thinking about them winning played a causal role in their doing so.
In order to test this explanation, Pronin et al. conducted several studies. In the first… well, it’s a bit odd, so I’m going to let Pronin et al. describe it:
This study tested whether college students might come to believe that they had caused another person pain through a voodoo curse when they had thoughts about the person consistent with such harm. Experimental participants assumed the role of “witch doctor” in an ostensible voodoo enactment involving a confederate as their “victim.” To examine the influence of evil thoughts about the victim, we arranged for participants to encounter either a victim who was offensive or one who was neutral. After this
encounter, participants were instructed to stick pins in a voodoo doll representing the victim, in the victim’s presence. The victim subsequently responded by reporting a slight headache, and participants were queried about their reactions to this symptom.
I’ve often said that much of social psychology is just voodoo, but… Anyway, Pronin et al. first looked at whether participants thought negatively of the “offensive” individual (who was wearing a shirt that read, “Stupid people shouldn’t breed,” and chewed gum with his mouth open). They found that people had more negative thought about the offensive guy than about the neutral one. They then found that people were much more likely to feel responsible for the pain the offensive guy displayed in the voodoo experiment than for the pain the neutral guy felt, indicating that they perceived a causal connection between their negative thought about the person and that person’s subsequent voodoo-induced pain.
In their second study, designed to study me, or people like me at least, they had participants observe a player shooting a basketball (the player had been “trained” to make shots from a particular point on the court). The participants were instructed to either visualize the player making the shots or to visualize the player missing the shots. When the player made the shots, participants who’d visualized him or her doing so tended to believe that their visualizations had something to do with the player’s success. Furthermore, other participants, who served as witnesses and had access to which type of visualization the first participant was using (either making or missing the shot) also believed that the first participant’s visualization had something to do with success when they visualized the player making the shot.
The next study was conducted in the field. Or rather, it was conducted at the court. The experimenters went to a Princeton-Harvard basketball game (exciting, I’m sure, what with all those picks and rolls), and asked Princeton fans to either think about how particular Princeton players could contribute to their team winning, or to visualize how they would pick those players out of a crowd. Princeton won (yawn), and when the fans were surveyed afterwards, Pronin et al. found that those who had been asked to think about how particular players could contribute (i.e., consistent thoughts) were more likely to feel like their thoughts were in some way responsible for the win than thoe who’d thought about how to identify the players (inconsistent thoughts).
In the final study, participants (mostly Eagles fans) watched Super Bowl 39 between the Eagles and the Patriots. In that game, the Eagles ended up falling pretty far behind, and ultimately losing. Pronin et al. figured that Eagles fans thinking about the game were likely to think negative thought about the game’s outcome (“Oh no! We’re behind; we’re gonna lose!”), so they predicted that when that negative outcome occurred, Eagles fans who thought more about the game would be more likely to believe that they bore some responsibility for the Eagles losing. This experiment differs from the previous three in that the apparent mental causation would be of an undesirable event, rather than a desirable one (assuming that harming someone you don’t like is harmful). Consistent with their prediction, there was a significant correlation between how much people reported thinking about the game and their perceived responsibility for its outcome (r = .3).
Together, these studies provide evidence for the role of at least two of the causes of apparent mental causation, priority and consistency, in magical thinking. People who had thoughts consistent with an external event (like their team winning or losing, or a person they don’t like being hurt) tended to feel some responsibility for that event. The first study (the voodoo study) does provide support for the exclusivity principle, because if thoughts aren’t causing voodoo pain, then what the hell is? But the other three studies, each involving sports, actually seem to provide evidence against the exclusivity principle. Presumably, sports fans know that if a team wins or loses, there are a variety of possible reasons for this, but in these studies, when participants’ thoughts were prior to the outcome and consistent with it, they still felt some responsibility. Despite this problem for Wegner’s theory, though, these studies do point the way to a better understanding of magical thinking, and once again make it clear that magical thinking is really pretty mundane, relying on the same principles that guide our perception of ordinary physical causes. It’s no wonder, then, that all of us experience it from time to time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch my team play, because when I don’t, they lose.
1From Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. P. (1999). Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54, 480-492.
3 Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCarthy, K., & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 218-231.