A Game of Magical Thinking Leaves Reality on the Sidelines

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, February 5, 2007

The 58 fans sitting before the big-screen television were watching the Super Bowl. Psychologist Emily Pronin was watching the fans.

Pronin and the fans were at Princeton University, just up the road from Philadelphia. It was 2005, the year the Philadelphia Eagles returned to the Super Bowl after a gap of more than two decades. The audience at the student center contained mostly Eagles fans -- and they were exerting all the mantras, incantations and spells they knew to get the game to go Philadelphia's way.

Pronin passed out questionnaires to find out how involved each fan was in the game. The questionnaires asked how often the fans were thinking about the next play and how closely they were paying attention.

At the end of the game, which the Eagles lost, Pronin asked each fan a simple question: How responsible did the person feel for Philadelphia's defeat?

"Rationally, you should not feel responsible at all for the outcome of the Super Bowl," Pronin said. "But the more people perceived themselves as having thought about the game, the more they thought themselves responsible for the game's outcome."

A sports event such as the Super Bowl is a perfect venue to examine a phenomenon that influences many aspects of life: Large numbers of people regularly display signs of magical thinking -- they believe they have influenced distant events or can sense connections between things that have no known physical connection.

Have you ever told yourself that something you want very much would happen if the next three traffic lights turned green as you drove down the road? Have you ever forgone a warranty on an expensive new electronic gizmo and then worried about whether your decision would cause the gizmo to fail? Have you ever worn a lucky shirt to a big game?

Many people, of course, explicitly believe in the paranormal, but that is not what we are talking about. What interests psychologists such as Pronin is that people hold fast to beliefs in magical powers even as they explicitly say the beliefs do not make sense.

"It points to the question of how we can be of two minds," said Jane Risen, a social psychology graduate student at Cornell University who has conducted experiments on magical thinking. "You believe something is true even as you know it is false. When you invoke a rational mind-set, you know one thing, but we still have these intuitions that lead us to something very different."

When it comes to sports, magical thinking is merely funny. We implore the TV set to do our bidding and mightily exert our will to get an opposing team to make a mistake. But such thinking is less funny elsewhere in life: Magical thinking gets people to waste money on unnecessary insurance -- buying expensive warranties on products that are unlikely to fail because they believe not buying insurance will make it more likely that the product will fail. And once people buy insurance, magical thinking prompts them to handle it carelessly because they believe they are unlikely to face a problem.

In one experiment Risen conducted, volunteers were divided into two groups at random. Both were told about a student, "John," who was eagerly awaiting an admissions letter from Stanford University. As he waited, his mother sent John a Stanford T-shirt. One group of volunteers was told John immediately wore the T-shirt, anticipating good news, while the other was told he stuffed the shirt into a drawer and waited for the mail.

Risen found that large numbers of people believed John was less likely to be accepted to Stanford if he wore the T-shirt before the admissions letter arrived -- presumably because such behavior was presumptuous and "tempted fate." The feeling that a T-shirt can influence what the mail brings, of course, is magical thinking because there is no known physical connection between the two events.

The psychologist argued that even if the universe does not punish presumptive behavior, the belief that it does can serve a useful social function: "What are the behaviors that seem to tempt fate?" she asked. "Most fall into the categories of hubris and greed . . . belief in the evil eye is common to many cultures."

At a basic cognitive level, magical thinking also exploits the human tendency to see causative links between events that are merely correlated.

"We're used to inferring causation when something happens before something else and conceptually there is some connection between the two," Pronin said.

In another experiment she conducted, people were asked to stuff pins in a voodoo doll that represented an annoying person. When the annoying person (who was a confederate of the researchers) faked a headache, people who had wished the person harm seemed prone to believe their thoughts had triggered the headache.

"When the sun goes down, we notice half an hour later it is colder out," Pronin said. "It seems reasonable to infer the sun going down is what made it colder. The process of inferring causation is automatic. It leads us to accurate conclusions in many cases, but on some occasions, the mind fools itself."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company