Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Magical Thinking

Originally posted on November 9, 2010

My wife reminded me that this bit of psychodynamic jargon may not be easily understood by most people, the term “magic” immediately drawing them into their own associations to that term. I realized (of course!) that she’s right, and that I’d grown so used to the term that I thought people knew what it meant. We discussed better words: What I’m talking about is the way the subconscious mind can think like a child, simplistically. It can affirm an idea through its will. For example: “It doesn’t exist, therefore, we can ignore it. I don’t like it, it scares me, therefore it isn’t. I feel small and vulnerable, so I’ll imagine myself to be big and fierce. I’m not feeling mean and envious, YOU are!”

Little kids do these maneuvers all the time, and in their own world it seems reasonable. They haven’t learned more grown-up standards of testing logic or reality. However, most adults continue to use these maneuvers a lot, especially around the edges. One of the maneuvers goes like this: “If I can impress myself and others with how grown-up and competent and perhaps even powerful and fierce I am, no one will notice and I don’t even have to notice myself the way I still think like a child. I really like thinking this way, although I would never associate it consciously with childhood. Using rationalization, I can make up more grown up excuses that make these modes of thinking plausible.”

The realm of rhetoric—the art of persuasion—overlaps with propaganda, advertising, and the sub-field known as logical fallacies. It feeds on these more simplistic tendencies in human thinking. Semantics is a related field, noticing that the way words are phrased can suggest either praise or blame.

What struck me is the problem of explaining to people the idea that the tendency to primitive or childish thinking remains prevalent in adulthood. Folks may not want to recognize this, because it challenges the sense of pride. The best way to cope with the problem, though, is to recognize that it happens, it’s just the way things are. A philosopher who specializes in logic might still make these mistakes in his inner life or in relations with loved ones. People compartmentalize.

If you use some of these maneuvers, like compartmentalization, or “suppression,”  on purpose and to a limited degree, it can be not only harmless, but absolutely necessary for adaptation. We can’t think about every worry and every idea at the same time. (I think Woody Allen, the comedian, said that the purpose of time is that everything doesn’t all happen at the same time.) The trick is to become more aware of when you’re using wiser or more foolish ways of thinking about things. If you don’t know the prevalence and subtlety of folly, you’ll fool yourself!

Back to the opening point: I realize that I’ve been mildly fooling myself that everyone knew what I meant when I talked about magical thinking, when probably everyone didn’t—and probably (indeed) most people didn’t! I guess that’s one slight type of folly—becoming so habituated to certain words that we forget that others don’t know them.  I can see it in others: When people email me and include abbreviations or initials that they think I know what it means, I wonder—do they not realize that folks outside of their circle will be mystified? But then I realized that I’d done it too.  Ah, well. It’s a good lesson.

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