Where Does Magical Thinking Stem From and How Is It Acquired?

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Rituals associated with magical thinking are practiced by young children and adults alike in the face of uncertainty and during periods of stress or transition that pose a potential threat to either the self or selfhood; the fact that a belief and reliance on magical rituals can exist simultaneously with a rational cause-effect perception of reality in both adults and children reveals that while individuals may attain a more rational worldview with age, a system of non-rational thinking may be foundational to human cognitive functions.

Given all this, then where does magical thinking stem from and how is it acquired? Eugene Subbotsky (1997) argues that both magical and rational cause-effect reasoning are derived from a common source, that of phenomenalism. Magical thinking and scientific reasoning are often placed in diametric opposition, but by investigating causal reasoning through the lens of phenomenalism it is possible to conceive of magical and scientific thinking as two sides of the same coin—both linking the presence of a specific cause to a preceding effect and, hence, limited by the same basic principles of causality (Woolley, J. D., Browne C.A., & Boerger E.A. 2006). But phenomenalism itself anticipates these two forms of causal reasoning, and is defined by Subbotsky as “a purely empirical judgment about a causal connection between . . . events and lacks a theoretical foundation of any kind.” (14) Phenomenalism can also be thought of as an intermediary stage of uncertainty, in which an individual notices a cause-effect linkage but has not yet defined it within either the magical or rational context.

As research by Subbotsky (1997) reveals, children's interpretations of inexplicable events are given over to magi...

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...opious evidence suggests that children as well as adults appear to revert to magical thinking when compelled by anxiety-inducing or generally uncontrollable situations. Moreover, there are telling commonalities between the constraints placed on both ordinary and magical causal reasoning that suggest a precedent process is at work behind the scenes of human cognition. Subbotsky ties these similarities together in what is known as the “coexistence model”, wherein scientifically-based causal reasoning is not a usurper of the mind, as has been previously speculated, but merely a later-developed method of reasoning against a submerged background of alternate ways of reasoning. Magical thinking is one such causal reasoning process, and it can be spurred to the forefront as a way for the mind to regain control in distressful situations that threaten the self or selfhood.

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