Magical thinking is a term used in anthropology, philosophy, and psychology, denoting the causal relationships between actions and events.

There are subtle differences in meaning between individual theorists as well as amongst fields of study.

In anthropology, it denotes the attribution of causality between entities grouped with one another (coincidence) or similar to one another.

In psychology, the entities between which a causal relation has to be posited are more strictly delineated; here it denotes the belief that one’s thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it.

In both cases, the belief can cause a person to experience fear, seemingly not rationally justifiable to an observer outside the belief system, of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because of an assumed correlation between doing so and threatening calamities.

In psychiatry, magical thinking is a disorder of thought content, here it denotes the false belief that one’s thoughts, actions, or words will cause or prevent a specific consequence in some way that defies commonly understood laws of causality.


In religion, folk religion, and superstitious beliefs, the posited causality is between religious ritual, prayer, sacrifice, or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense.

The use of a lucky item or ritual, for example, is assumed to increase the probability that one will perform at a level so that one can achieve a desired goal or outcome.

Researchers have identified two possible principles as the formal causes of the attribution of false causal relationships:

  • the temporal contiguity of two events
  • associative thinking“, the association of entities based upon their semblance to one another

Prominent Victorian theorists identified associative thinking (a common feature of practitioners of magic) as a characteristic form of irrationality.

As with all forms of magical thinking, association-based and similarities-based notions of causality are not always said to be the practice of magic by a magician.

For example, the doctrine of signatures held that similarities between plant parts and body parts indicated their efficacy in treating diseases of those body parts, and was a part of Western medicine during the Middle Ages.

This association-based thinking is a vivid example of the general human application of the representativeness heuristic.

Edward Burnett Tylor coined the term “associative thinking“, characterizing it as pre-logical, in which the “magician’s folly” is in mistaking an imagined connection with a real one.

The magician believes that thematically linked items can influence one another by virtue of their similarity. For example, in E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s account, members of the Azande tribe believe that rubbing crocodile teeth on banana plants can invoke a fruitful crop.

Because crocodile teeth are curved (like bananas) and grow back if they fall out, the Azande observe this similarity and want to impart this capacity of regeneration to their bananas. To them, the rubbing constitutes a means of transference.

Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) elaborated upon Tylor’s principle by dividing magic into the categories of sympathetic and contagious magic.

The latter is based upon the law of contagion or contact, in which two things that were once connected retain this link and have the ability to affect their supposedly related objects, such as harming a person by harming a lock of his hair.

Sympathetic magic and homeopathy operate upon the premise that “like affects like“, or that one can impart characteristics of one object to a similar object. Frazer believed that some individuals think the entire world functions according to these mimetic, or homeopathic, principles.

In How Natives Think (1925), Lucien Lévy-Bruhl describes a similar notion of mystical, “collective representations”. He too sees magical thinking as fundamentally different from a Western style of thought.

He asserts that in these representations, “primitive” people’s “mental activity is too little differentiated for it to be possible to consider ideas or images of objects by themselves apart from the emotions and passions which evoke those ideas or are evoked by them“.

Lévy-Bruhl explains that natives commit the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, in which people observe that x is followed by y, and conclude that x has caused y. He believes that this fallacy is institutionalized in native culture and is committed regularly and repeatedly.

Despite the view that magic is less than rational and entails an inferior concept of causality, in The Savage Mind (1966), Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that magical procedures are relatively effective in exerting control over the environment.

This outlook has generated alternative theories of magical thinking, such as the symbolic and psychological approaches, and softened the contrast between “educated” and “primitive” thinking:

“Magical thinking is no less characteristic of our own mundane intellectual activity than it is of Zande curing practices.”

Forms: Direct Effect, “projecting” mental states onto the world

Bronisław Malinowski‘s Magic, Science, and Religion (1954) discusses another type of magical thinking, in which words and sounds are thought to have the ability to directly affect the world.

This type of wish fulfillment thinking can result in the avoidance of talking about certain subjects (“speak of the devil and he’ll appear”), the use of euphemisms instead of certain words, or the belief that to know the “true name” of something gives one power over it, or that certain chants, prayers, or mystical phrases will bring about physical changes in the world.

More generally, it is magical thinking to take a symbol to be its referent or an analogy to represent an identity.

Sigmund Freud believed that magical thinking was produced by cognitive developmental factors. He described practitioners of magic as projecting their mental states onto the world around them, similar to a common phase in child development.

From toddlerhood to early school age, children will often link the outside world with their internal consciousness, e.g. “It is raining because I am sad.

Symbolic approaches: creating or expressing through symbols and speech

Another theory of magical thinking is a symbolic approach. Leading thinkers of this category, including Stanley J. Tambiah, believe that magic is meant to be expressive, rather than instrumental.

As opposed to the direct, mimetic thinking of Frazer, Tambiah asserts that magic utilizes abstract analogies to express the desired state, along the lines of metonymy or metaphor.

An important question raised by this interpretation is how mere symbols could exert material effects. One possible answer lies in John L. Austin’s concept of “performativity,” in which the act of saying something makes it true, such as in an inaugural or marital rite.

Other theories propose that magic is effective because symbols are able to affect internal psycho-physical states. They claim that the act of expressing certain anxiety or desire can be reparative in itself.

Ritual and Belief, Reasons and Apparent Benefits

Some scholars believe that magic is effective psychologically. They cite the placebo effect and psychosomatic disease as prime examples of how our mental functions exert power over our bodies.

Similarly, Robin Horton suggests that engaging in magical practices surrounding healing can relieve anxiety, which could have a significant positive physical effect.

In the absence of advanced health care, such effects would play a relatively major role, thereby helping to explain the persistence and popularity of such practices.

According to theories of anxiety relief and control, people turn to magical beliefs when there exists a sense of uncertainty and potential danger and few logical or scientific responses to such danger. Magic is used to restore a sense of control over circumstance.

In support of this theory, research indicates that superstitious behavior is invoked more often in high-stress situations, especially by people with a greater desire for control.

Another potential reason for the persistence of magic rituals is that the rituals prompt their own use by creating a feeling of insecurity and then proposing themselves as precautions.

Boyer and Liénard propose that in obsessive-compulsive rituals — a possible clinical model for certain forms of magical thinking — focus shifts to the lowest level of gestures, resulting in goal demotion. For example, an obsessive-compulsive cleaning ritual may overemphasize the order, direction, and a number of wipes used to clean the surface.

The goal becomes less important than the actions used to achieve the goal, with the implication that magic rituals can persist without efficacy because the intent is lost within the act.

Alternatively, some cases of harmless “rituals” may have positive effects in bolstering intent, as may be the case with certain pre-game exercises in sports.

Phenomenological approach

Ariel Glucklich tries to understand magic from a subjective perspective, attempting to comprehend magic on a phenomenological, experientially based level.

Glucklich seeks to describe the attitude that magical practitioners feel which he calls “magical consciousness” or the “magical experience.”

He explains that it is based upon “the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception.

Another phenomenological model is that of Gilbert Lewis, who argues that “habit is unthinking.” He believes that those practicing magic do not think of an explanatory theory behind their actions any more than the average person tries to grasp the pharmaceutical workings of aspirin.

When the average person takes an aspirin, he does not know how the medicine chemically functions. He takes the pill with the premise that there is proof of efficacy.

Similarly, many who avail themselves of magic do so without feeling the need to understand a causal theory behind it.

Substantive difference

One theory of substantive difference is that of the open versus closed society. Horton describes this as one of the key dissimilarities between traditional thought and Western science.

He suggests that the scientific worldview is distinguished from a magical one by the scientific method and by skepticism, requiring the falsifiability of any scientific hypothesis.

He notes that for native peoples “there is no developed awareness of alternatives to the established body of theoretical texts.”

He notes that all further differences between traditional and Western thought can be understood as a result of this factor.

He says that because there are no alternatives in societies based on magical thought, a theory does not need to be objectively judged to be valid.

In children

According to some, so-called Magical thinking is most prominent in children between ages 2 and 7.

Due to examinations of grieving children, it is asserted that during this age, children strongly believe that their personal thoughts have a direct effect on the rest of the world.

It is posited that their minds will create a reason to feel responsible if they experience something tragic that they do not understand, e.g. a death, Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, came up with a theory of four developmental stages.

Children between ages 2 and 7 would be classified under his preoperational stage of development. During this stage, children are still developing their use of logical thinking.

A child’s thinking is dominated by perceptions of physical features, meaning that if the child is told that a family pet has “gone away” when it has in fact died, then the child will have difficulty comprehending the transformation of the dog not being around anymore.

Magical thinking would be evident here, since the child may believe that the family pet being gone is just temporary. Their young minds in this stage do not understand the finality of death and magical thinking may bridge the gap.


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