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Saturday, March 24, 2007

A life of magical thinking

From a January story in the NY Times, which lead me to think about Antonio Gramsci for the first time in a while:
Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”
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.
In another experiment, the researchers demonstrated that young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache. And they found, similarly, that devoted fans who watched the 2005 Super Bowl felt somewhat responsible for the outcome, whether their team won or lost. Millions in Chicago and Indianapolis are currently trying to channel the winning magic.
Only in extreme doses can magical thinking increase the likelihood of mental distress, studies suggest. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often nearly paralyzed by the convictions that they must perform elaborate rituals, like hand washing or special prayers, to ward off contamination or disaster. The superstitions, perhaps harmless at the outset, can grow into disabling defense mechanisms.
I don't recall doing much wishing when I was young, at least not where I expected wishing to make it so. But the observation about sports is right on. I think that is one of the big attractions of sports: you invest your wishing and receive as dividend a portion of the victory or failure.

But more importantly, I think the piece errs by assuming that magical thinking is isolated to unusual cases like remote prayer and OCD. Our very experience of cause and effect is cobbled together from correlates that often turn out to be false: if I switch lanes, the lane will start moving as soon as I have left; John Kerry lost the election because voters saw him as stiff; a low-carb diet will help me lose pounds more easily. What evidence do we have for most of our beliefs, besides scattered observations that we connect liberally?

In one frustrating recent example, a friend remarked that she had been excited about Barack Obama last December, but now he's proving to be just another unexceptional candidate. A few questions revealed that she hadn't particularly been following the campaign, and certainly not reading the Congressional Record. It wasn't that Obama had been inert or pandering, but that she hadn't learned anything new about him, and assumed there was nothing new to learn.

I don't mean to roll my eyes at her; I do the same thing. It's difficult to catch myself making unfair assumptions, because they seem so like the thousands of necessary assumptions I make all the time. I've never read an in-depth study of the results of drug legalization, for example, but from news stories, scattered anecdotes, a few arguments, and internal pondering I've come to believe it's a good idea almost as much as I believe the sky is blue.

This is not to say that we are too quick to assign cause-and-effect relationships to phenomena. In fact, we can't do otherwise; it's how our minds work. "Magical thinking" as demonstrated by the blindfold experiment is the same kind of everyday thinking that allows us to build knowledge from incomplete and inconsistent stimuli. We should not pretend to be above such gaps in our thinking. Instead we should follow the suggestion of Antonio Gramsci, who writes in Prison Notebooks:

The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself' as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory... therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.
(As edited by Edward Said in Orientalism, from various translations.)

I don't know of any writers publishing such inventories. But they need not be explicit. One kind of good writer, I think, makes his inventory of assumptions present in the text even if he doesn't bore readers by enumerating them. That's the kind of writer I try to be.

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