Magical thinking involves the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world. Examples include beliefs that the movement of the sun, moon, and wind or the occurrence of rain can be influenced by one’s thoughts, or by the manipulation of some type of symbolic representation of these physical phenomena.
Magical thinking became an important topic with the rise of sociology and anthropology in the 19th century. It was argued that magical thinking is an integral feature of most religious beliefs, such that one’s inner experience, often in participation with a higher power, could influence the course of events in the physical world. Prominent early theorists suggested that this type of thinking characterized traditional, non-Western cultures, which contrasted with the more developmentally advanced rational-scientific thought found in industrialized, Western cultures. Magical thinking, then, was tied to religion and “primitive” cultures and considered developmentally inferior to the scientific reasoning found in more “advanced” Western cultures.
This perspective influenced 20th-century psychological theorists, notably Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget. Freud argued that there are two fundamental forms of thought: primary and secondary process. Primary process thought is governed by the pleasure principle, whereby id-driven instinctual desires seek fulfillment without consideration of the constraints of the external world. Magical thinking—the belief that wishes can impose their own order on the material world—is a form of primary process thought. Secondary process, in contrast, is a more advanced development, resulting from the emergence of the ego, which provides rational assessments under the direction of the reality principle, that allow for adaptive responses to the environment. Freud used this model of individual development to explain the stages of cultural development proposed by anthropologists. That is, the ontogenetic development of the individual—from the id impulses and magical thought of childhood, to the ego constraints and rationality of adulthood—mirrors the phylogenetic development of human cultures from magical-religious to rational-scientific.
Piaget’s investigation also placed magical thinking at the center of young children’s thought. Piaget queried children about their understanding of events in the physical world and discovered that children, prior to the age of 7 or 8, impute their own activity as the causal source for physical events. So, for example, children believe that their own activity causes the motion of the sun and moon and that waving their hands causes the wind. Magical thinking, Piaget argues, results from a profound egocentrism, of experiencing oneself as the center of the universe, and a lack of differentiation of intrapsychic experience and physical causality. This qualitatively distinct developmental stage is superseded by a differentiation of the intrapsychic from the material world, a decentration of thought, and the capacity for logical, scientific reasoning. Again, magical thinking is replaced by rational, scientific thought. And while less programmatically explicit than Freud, Piaget also argued that these stages of ontogeny recapitulate the progressive stages in the development of cultures, from magical religious to rational-scientific.
Recent research suggests that magical thinking is both less and more pervasive than previously thought. First, evidence suggests that although young children do utilize magical thinking, their egocentrism is much less pervasive and profound, and they are capable of a much more sophisticated understanding of physical causality, at a much earlier age, than Piaget proposed. Second, adults, despite their capacity for scientific reasoning, do hold religious beliefs that often involve features of magical thinking, engage in magical thinking at times, and can be influenced to think thusly under some circumstances. Third, the magical thinking of children may be distinct from the religious beliefs of adults, which address metaphysical considerations about ultimate questions of life, meaning, being, and mortality that involve more sophisticated cognitive considerations than found in children’s magical thought.
- Frazer, G. (1922). The golden bough. New York: Macmillan. Freud, S. (1946). Totem and taboo. New York: Vintage.
- Piaget, (1930). The child’s conception of physical causality. New York: Harcourt Brace.
- Rosengren, S., Johnson, C. N., & Harris, P. C. (2000).Imagining the impossible. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.