Superstition, or an irrational belief in supernatural influences, is part of human nature, according to science journalist Matthew Hutson, author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.” Although he doesn’t personally believe in any kind of karma, luck, or superstition, Hutson, who was previously the News Editor at Psychology Today magazine, set off to investigate the world of magical thinking in 2006. We spoke to Hutson about his book and the role superstition plays in our daily lives. Turns out magical thinking and superstition help make our lives seem more meaningful and give us a sense of control. Where’s the fun in rationality, anyway?
For the most part, superstitions are pretty widely accepted in our society. Why do you think it’s important to write a book about them?
I don’t believe in magic, or luck, or God, or any of these things. So it’s very fascinating that so many people do. I’m trying to understand how, on a fundamental level, we understand reality and then also more emotionally, how we find meaning in our lives. So these things come together in the study of magical thinking, where you also get to look at all these kind of quirky behaviors people have.
How would you define superstition or “magical thinking” to a friend or family member (or in a non-academic sounding way)?
I define magical thinking basically as treating the world as if it had elements of mind, or treating your own mind as if it could directly influence the world.
In your opinion, what would our lives be like if we didn’t have magical thinking or believe in superstitions?
Life would be a lot more boring for one thing. We would all be a lot more rational, of course. Which in some cases would be a good thing — we wouldn’t have religious wars, we wouldn’t have people proclaiming to be energy healers and try[ing] to heal people and distract[ing] them from using … evidence-based medicine. People would be less anxious about jinxes and that sort of thing. We might feel a little bit more out of control since magical thinking provides a sense of control in life, or can in some situations, where you rely on lucky rituals and that sort of thing. So I think life would be very different in both positive and negative ways.
If people could take away one thing from this book, what would it be?
It would be that we are all guilty of magical thinking because it’s a part of human nature. If there were a second thing, it would be that there can be significant repercussions to magical thinking. It can be negative, but it can also be positive. So that even though belief in magic is an illusion, at least I believe, there can be positive illusions.
You mention in your introduction that you were an atheist for the majority of your life. Has anything changed on your view of religion or karma?
On an explicit rational level, I don’t have any more belief in magic than I did before or during the writing of the book. But I would say I am more tolerant of belief in these things.
In Chapter 7 you state that coincidences are the “manna” of magical thinking, providing us the meaning in our lives we are looking for. Why do you think this is?
Well, drawing connections is very important to us. It’s an essential part of human cognition. We’re programmed to see connections between things and that includes seeing coincidences and thinking that maybe they’re part of an intentional plan. So one type of coincidence that can lead to magical thinking is that if you think something and then it happens, you might think maybe your thought caused the event. Or you might think that your thought was a premonition of the event and you have some sort of sixth sense.
You suggest that we can re-write the script when it comes to changing the meaning behind things that happen in our lives. So, instead of associating the black cat crossing my path with bad luck, I could say that it was a good sign that I should really adopt a homeless cat and help the community. Is this something you practice yourself?
Sometimes I do. One metaphor I use for dealing with superstition is jiu-jitsu. It’s using the weight of your opponent against himself or herself. So for instance, let’s say you just barely missed your bus. You could say, “Oh, that’s really unlucky, I think that maybe the universe is against me.” Or you can use your natural inclination to read meaning into it and try to read positive meaning into it, and say, “Well maybe this was a lucky event, and maybe on the next bus I am going to meet someone really interesting or fall in love” or that sort of thing. So then you become more motivated to take advantage of your situation; so maybe when the next bus comes you strike up a conversation with a stranger and learn something.
Some researchers believe that superstition is a feature of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Where do you think the line between superstition and OCD is?
As soon as your behaviors get in the way of the rest of your life, then it becomes pathological, and then it might be diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So if you think it’s lucky to touch a doorknob twice when you’re leaving home in the morning, if that makes you feel lucky and gives you more self-confidence then that’s fine. But then if you think it’s lucky to touch the doorknob two thousand times every morning, then it’s going to get in the way of your life and other things you want to accomplish. That’s heading towards OCD territory.
Do you have lucky underwear, or any superstitions you can’t live without? Share your secrets in the comments below!