Magical Thinking the Psychological Case Against Magic

Virginia Carraway Stark

Magical Thinking is a term used by psychologists and psychiatrists to refer to an erroneous idea that what someone’s actions or thoughts are has a direct impact on the world around them. This is considered to be a mental disorder according the mental health bible the DSM (currently edition five).


Having ‘magical thinking’ considered a mental health problem is problematic on many fronts. First and foremost it applies not just to pagans/heathens/wiccans but also to all the believers in the ‘One Book’ religions as Judaism, Christianity and Islam are also referred to. In fact, it heavily implies that anyone who isn’t an atheist is mentally ill. It also suggests that almost all of humanity throughout history has had some form of this mental disease. The question arises of: How can the history of humanity, mythology and most of philosophy be put under the banner of a mental illness?

If this diagnosis was to be applied dogmatically, it would mean that nothing  could be attributed to cause and effect without the blessing of science first being put onto it. On the far end of this dogma is the idea that, ‘if I don’t wash my hands 33 times before leaving the house the president will die’. On the one hand, there is the coldly mechanical idea of withholding all conclusion about the world around us unless it is scientifically acceptable. On the other hand (the one washed 33 times) there is a total bias towards a lack of understanding and superstitious paranoia takes the place of all reason.

I’ve pondered the concept of Magical Thinking a fair bit. The first time I read about it I was quite honestly shocked. I felt like my spiritual beliefs were being fundamentally challenged, that it was, in essence, a neatly phrased modern version of a witch trial. Do you think leaving oatmeal and milk out for the faeries is pertinent to do? Well, then you better take these anti-psychotics because there is something not right in your head. That was how I first interpreted the DSM description of Magical Thinking.

And I wasn’t alone in being on the receiving end of this ‘charge’. In fact, anyone who believes in faith healing, God, auras, the supernatural, ghosts, spirits, life after death or anything outside of a stainless steal laboratory could be accused of Magical Thinking. Having a faith in any higher being is, by its nature Magical. There is the belief, for no proven reason, a faith, that doing what the higher being ‘tells us’ is the right path has no rational cause and effect. Many people have decided that this sense of a higher being is in truth merely our own Id, our idealized self, better known as a conscience telling ourselves what is right or wrong.

Approximately 90% of Americans believe in a God and yet they have no rational reason to do so. They are all guilty of Magical Thinking as they believe that the hand of God guides the world or even them on an individual basis and yet they don’t have a single shred of scientific evidence that this is the case. But wait… if we have to prove everything before we can accept it as part of the world around us, it’s going to be slow going.

For example, lets take the classic example of a mother allowing their child to touch a burner to prove to the child that the burner is hot. A child has no evidence that they can be burned until they feel the pain for themselves. As soon as they burn their fingers for the first time, an intelligent child will always be careful around burners ever after. This is a controlled experiment that parents will often watch carefully so that they can be sure to immediately treat the slight burn and to make sure that something devastating doesn’t happen. For example, if the child was to put their entire hand or for some reason their face or foot out to touch the burner they could be injured very badly. This controlled experiment shows a child that the world around them has consequences; painful consequences. It also teaches the child to trust their parents who have likely warned them in the past not to touch the burner but the child continues to reach out for it as it glows cherry red.

This is a good way to raise a child into an adult with a good grasp of cause and effect. Certain things can be relied on based off of what we have heard from others to be so. We do not have to prove everything by touching the hot burner in order to understand and have faith in the basic tenants of the physical universe.

For example, take this same child, they have successfully learned that burners are hot. Now the child’s mother says that the hot water tank is broken but not to worry, a plumber is coming in the morning. The child’s life has been disrupted. Perhaps this has never happened before, there has always been hot water. The child has two choices: Either believe their parent that something that has never happened before will be resolved by a mysterious stranger that will come soon, or deny that this could be possible and believe that the hot water is gone forever. Take this one step further and say that the child believes that the hot water is gone forever because of something the chid did wrong and we wander back into the world of magical thinking.

The child is unconvinced by their parent’s assurances and turns the faucets on and off repeatedly. In fact, the child is so distraught that they stay up after their parents have gone to bed to continue this and wake up first thing in the morning and continue to turn the water on and off. The plumber arrives and fixes the water tank and their parents pay for his services. In their world, this is a natural happening. A child with a rational sense will see the cause and effect of the plumber’s arrival and the return of the hot water while someone who is inward turned to the point of mental imbalance could decide that the plumber himself was incidental. What actually brought the hot water back was turning the water on and off to the point of obsession.

Now the child repeats this behavior daily to ensure that the hot water isn’t lost again. They have determined due to a twist in their mind that it was their actions to restore the water rather than the plumber’s technical aptitude that keeps the hot water flowing.

Now move this into adulthood and you can begin to see how this could become a grave mental health issue. This is only one example of Magical Thinking and the part of this story that puts it into the category of a disorder rather than of a ‘belief’ is multitudinous. First of all, it is easily disproved that the child’s actions are keeping the hot water going. The child never turned the water on and off before the hot water broke, so what changed to make this suddenly necessary? The child concocts an likely elaborate story to explain the change that has made it essential for them to repeat their actions and fill in the holes of their logic.

This sort of thinking rejects learning and rejects any thing that antagonizes their version of the world as they have set it up.

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Cult leaders such as Anton LeVey often fall prey to the perils of Magical Thinking.

The child’s parents take the child into the basement, they show them the hot water tank and explain how it works. They show him the pipes and the heating element. The child believes none of this. It remains a dogma in his mind that he is directly responsible for his family receiving hot water and no one can convince him otherwise. He has become a zealot.

This area of things is fairly easy to understand and from the different representatives of the mental health field I have talked to and the research I’ve done, it is this sort of thing that is classified as Magical Thinking as a disorder. It is thinking that is not only irrational, but also detrimental to the individual.

This is where things gets a little dicey again. Traditional religion has many elements to it that are not beneficial to the individual. Take for example, the devout Catholic who prays so often that their knees give out, or the many people who sacrifice all ideas of family in order to devote themselves to a religious order of any kind. Are they guilty of Magical Thinking?

The answer there is that it depends on who you talk to. If you ask a strict Atheist, they will likely tell you that any sort of belief in the supernatural is Magical Thinking and that at best the person is ignorant, and at worst dangerously depraved. Many people in the field of mental health believe in the unknown, and well they should! The entire field of psychiatry was once a fringe science that was not trusted. To this day we are constantly learning more about the human mind, it’s limitations and the more we learnt the more we discover that there is a vast wealth more of research to do before we’ve scratched the surface of the human mind’s capabilities.

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The Psychological take on Magical Thinking is a valuable asset for anyone who is interested in the Supernatural. We must be cautious in our thinking. We must build healthy associations and look for rational explanations. Have you ever met a magical practitioner who constantly claims everything in your life and the life of everyone they know as the result of a magical working they’ve done? I’ve known several people like this and it is extremely annoying to have your hard work and dedication attributed to something they did with candles this one night that they never mentioned before your life event occurred.

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It’s not just people who practice magic actively either. It’s frustrating to have someone refuse to take care of themselves because ‘God will provide’, or to have someone take credit for your accomplishment because they prayed for you. It all seems a little too convenient and grandiose.

I believe firmly that The Universe speaks to us, I do believe that you can influence things through good and bad intentions.  I believe that there are different ways of manifesting those intentions. I also believe that we are all responsible for our own actions and that not everything that happens around me happens because of me. In fact, I am a firm believer that most of what goes on around us has little to do with us and more to do with interacting personalities, other people’s bad days, poor planning, hastiness and flaws as well as perks in infrastructure and social planning.

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Unlike the child who believed they were responsible for the lack of hot water and later for its return, I believe in the actions of others. I believe that there is a physical world and we work within its boundaries. I also believe that whether it is magic, words or actions, that we are all capable of fundamentally impacting the physical world for good or evil. We are capable of changing boundaries and introducing new boundaries or discovering that our knowledge of old boundaries was incomplete or incorrect.

This plasticity of the mind keeps me personally from being dogmatic or irrational in my own magical thinking. I light candles because it centers me to do so. I enjoy their flame and their scent lingering in the air. It’s been proven that beeswax candles charge the air with electrons which forms a healthier environment for living organisms and so my desire to do this is even backed up with a little science. I don’t think that something dreadful will happen if I fail to light a candle and I am also careful to make sure that candles are watched closely for safety’s sake.

I believe that keeping a house clean makes for a better atmosphere. This is a two fold belief: Science tells me that a clean house keeps pests out of it. My experience tells me that I am able to find things more easily and to be less irritated because I’m not tripping on random items or searching for things when I need them.

Magically speaking I was taught that when something feels off in life that the very first thing to do is to tend to your physical environment. I sweep the floors, sweeping away the negativity in the air as I do so. I wash the floors with water that has herbs and essential oils in it that make the house smell good and make me happy as well as magically protecting the house.

I put things away that are out of place. I water my plants and make sure that my pets are groomed and clean. I make sure that I am groomed and clean. This again, not only gets rid of negativity but also encourages a healthier me. I put on make up. Long believed to banish the evil eye, lipstick and eye liners are essentials for any time I feel like something is out of alignment. Is this magical or is this physical? Does putting things to rights have a magical impact? Is this a symptom of Magical Thinking?

Again, an Atheist would argue the point, but from my perspective, everything I’ve described here has improved my quality of life, my confidence and how I feel about my immediate atmosphere. These are empowering acts that prevent a slide into despair. No one feels good in a messy house. No one feels good when they are dirty and ill kempt. Is it magic? That’s a matter of mindset. The point is, it isn’t hurting my quality of life to believe that it helps. It improves my life to believe in these things.

There is a fine line between magical and superstitious ways of being. The mental health community has made this clear in their handling of these beliefs. An Atheist may argue with me that putting lemongrass and clove essential oils in my mop water or on my dust cloth will in any way improve my protections, but they won’t argue that my house smells amazing. They also won’t argue with the fact that these extra steps make me happy and improve my quality of life.

This is the key to Magical Thinking in the Psychiatric handbook: Is it a detriment? Is it hurting the individual, their homes or their families?

If it is in any way something that makes your life brighter then it isn’t a mental disorder. If you aren’t hurting anyone and you are happy with the effects it isn’t a problem, it is, in fact, more of a coping mechanism.

I suggest that rather than taking the DSM definition of Magical Thinking as an insult, that we use it as a way to guide ourselves and to keep ourselves from getting off track. Are you being rational? Are you making grandiose claims to be affecting the lives of others? Are you having success with the actions you are taking? Is your life better for the magic you’ve done? Can you look around your home and your family and see how your beliefs have improved everyone’s lives or do you look around and see that your beliefs have closed you out of the world and cluttered it with useless debris?


Have you made things to fear out of your magic or things that make you feel more secure in an unpredictable world? One is a disorder and the other is a coping mechanism according to psychologists.

I rarely talk with other magical practitioners because I’ve observed too many of these tendencies in the general community. There are too many people who try to make claims over my own fortunes for good or ill. My life is the result of my own workings, whether that is how I treat the person who bags my groceries or how much writing I get done in a day. Sometimes bad things happen and this isn’t a grand conspiracy against me, it’s that random and detrimental forces do exist and the more bad things people put out into the world, the more likely it is that good people will be caught in their tornado.

Not everything happens because of Karma, not everything happens because of spells and magic. Most things happen because we live in a physical universe with physical laws. Beware the trappings of Magical Thinking, if magic isn’t bringing joy into your life then your path is a dangerous and unwholesome one whether looked at from a practical or mystic perspective. Evaluate your beliefs on a regular basis. Don’t get caught in ruts and do the same things again and again expecting different results… or the same results like the child and the hot water.

Keep it simple and keep your magical and physical life as clean as you can. Do things that delight you and that don’t burden you. Do all of this to evade the disorder known in the DSM-5 as ‘Magical Thinking’ and you an still keep magic in your life.

From Issue 11 of Outermost Available from ,  Amazon and many other places.