Could It Be Magic? Extreme Apparent Mental Causation

i-5c33151b672a72f15fd4ef81418d3567-voodoodoll.JPGHere 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.

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There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all
beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good- will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the in poetry; where trees, mountains and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. And though these poetical figures and expressions gain not on the belief, they may serve, at least, to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor natural. Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for a mere poetical or imaginary personage; but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it. Nay, philosophers cannot entirely exempt themselves from this natural frailty; but have oft ascribed to inanimate matter the horror of a , sympathies, antipathies, and other affections of human nature. The absurdity is not less, while we cast our eyes upwards; and transferring, as is too usual, human passions and infirmities to the deity, represent him as jealous and revengeful, capricious and partial, and, in short, a wicked and foolish man, in every respect but his superior power and authority. No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. The , which continually employ their thought, appearing always in the same aspect, are all apprehended to be of the same kind or species. Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves. [David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, 1775, sect III.]

Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for a mere poetical or imaginary personage; but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it.

Yes and the "worse" is that it sometimes happen by pure chance that the "properties" inferred from these hypothetical spirits existence DO match actual correlations.
That is, though this model is hopelessly misguided it is not entirely vacuous as regards its fitting to "reality", good luck then to eradicate it.
I have a remembrance about some feats of Balinese traditional agriculture which thru "holy observances" about plowing, planting, irrigation and the like were actually implementing very clever pest control strategies which came to fail and lead to utter disasters when "rational" practices were enforced.
I have no time now to retrieve these references but I could.

By Kevembuangga (not verified) on 12 Feb 2007 #permalink


i just wanted you to know that as i updated the look and content of the experimental philosophy blog, i realized i did not have mixing-memory listed on the blog-roll...i could have sworn i listed it a really long time ago (you are, after all, one of the contributors!)...i have now fixed this glaring shortcoming!

best wishes,

By tnadelhoffer (not verified) on 13 Feb 2007 #permalink

Self reported beliefs, especially when the experimenter's intent is fairly transparent, are highly suspect to be frank. Luckily there exists an easy solution.

If the respondents were asked to gamble on the outcome, and indeed there was belief in a causal effect on the game's outcome, people genuinely in possession of such a belief should be willing to wager on it. Two possible variants to the Harvard-Princeton game example are readily apparent. One is a scenario where respondents are asked to perform the treatment (visualize individual players' success, or memorize the players' facial features) in the first part of a game and then ask them to wager on the outcome of the second part of the game, which should produce conveniently quantifiable data on the effects of the treatment on wagers. Another possible variant is to ask all respondents to visualize success, and then compare wagers between a group that would be able to continue observing the game (and working their magical influence hypothetically) and a group which would be taken away to an area where they could not observe the game.

There is already a literature examining myopic bias (i.e. the tendency to bet on the home team, or to rate oneself or a familiar team/group as above average, e.g. Moore, & Kim (2003). "Myopic social prediction and the solo comparison effect"). It would be interesting to see if such a familiarity bias can be induced through such visualization treatment on a neutral subject.

If the respondents were asked to gamble on the outcome, and indeed there was belief in a causal effect on the game's outcome, people genuinely in possession of such a belief should be willing to wager on it.

Except it isn't clear how much that this is so, since wagering involves not merely believing but also temperament. Since wagering behavior does not directly measure belief but willingness to wager, and belief is just one contributor to this. People who play slot machines don't believe they're going to win every time; but they are willing to stick the coin in every time. People with gambling problems may be quite aware that they are almost certainly going to lose, but will wager anyway -- and may, in fact, wager more on things they think less likely because it's more exciting to win against the odds. And so forth.

On the other hand, you're in good company, since both Kant and the Bayesian epistemologists have argued for your claim. There are quite a few hidden complications in the subject, though; it's not an easy solution.