News & Politics

Magical Thinking Is Really Common in Contemporary Society—That's a Serious Problem

General education is a defense against it.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

When people aren't carefully oriented to reality, the result isn't just ignorance, it's ignorance indulged and defended. People become addicted to their ignorance, doubling and tripling down on it, digging in their heels, unwilling to surrender it.  

It’s easy to see why. After all, if you couldn't tell the difference between reality and make-believe, wouldn't you opt for make-believe? It's way more malleable and flattering than reality.

I do opt for make-believe as do you, constrained primarily by the orientation to reality that we received. Deprived of that orientation, we’d be less constrained and more addicted to make-believe.

A careful orientation to reality doesn't eliminate magical thinking. Rather it makes us slightly more aware of when we are engaging in it, which frees us to indulge in make-believe more safely. The better we get at distinguishing reality from fantasy, the more we can enjoy fantasy without being disoriented by it. 

Careful orientation to reality is called “general education,” society’s attempt to defend against what could be called “generalized ignorance,” not just ignorance about this or that, but a general incuriousness about reality.

One can get addicted to general education, curiosity breeding more curiosity, learning inspiring more learning. But generalized ignorance is much more addictive. That’s because it’s an addiction to less effort.

One’s personal burden gets lighter and lighter through a vicious cycle. One’s make-believe magical thinking bolsters one’s general ignorance which, in turn, liberates one to indulge in more make-believe magical thinking.

General ignorance is much more addictive than general education because of a core biological attribute that really takes off in us humans, organisms with language.

Organisms evolve toward greater efficiency – maximal gain for minimal effort. With language, we can pursue maximal gain through minimal lip-service. We can talk our way deep into self-justification and self-insulation.

Lip service is like a virtual thorny hide or prickly bark, isolating us from challenges. We externalize threats to our efficiency, laying responsibility anywhere but at our feet. It’s the broad psychological application of “not in my backyard,” whereby we excuse anything in ourselves. “That’s not my problem. Keep it away from me.”

That’s what drives magical thinking – the biological pursuit of efficiency expressed through dismissive lip-service. This self-insulation is at the heart of projection too, a fundamental appetite to pretend we are dealing with problems by saying, “They’re not mine.”

We would do well to recognize this source of background-level dissociation, our common impulse to regard reality as fiction and fiction as reality, closing our eyes and dismissing as fictions all challenges to ourselves and embracing the fictions that lay the burden elsewhere.

This background-level dissociation is the enemy of civilization which resists it at best it can through careful attempts to orient us all to reality. And the enemy has the edge. Civilization fights an uphill battle against the human tendency to fall toward make-believe, self-justification.

We all would like to offload the burdens, to externalize all costs to us as though they belong to others. At its best, civilization is a bulwark against that, a berm that keeps us all from rolling faster and faster toward self-justifying ignorance.

The instinct to survive and thrive in the real world is strong. The instinct to dismiss the real world as not our problem is stronger.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Jeremy Sherman Ph.D. researches how the living interpret, from their cradle at the origin of life to our current grave situation.

What advice would you give other teachers considering a strike?