Magical Thinking and Bad Judgement

It turns out that the term ‘magical thinking’ actually is a kind of technical term used by psychologists, religious meta-theorists and sociologists to describe free associative thought processes that can yield productive ideas. One iteration of it, used in medical circles, connects this to the very real, very helpful ‘placebo effect.’ Believe something will work and somehow it just does; even if you are told it is merely a placebo it still has the statistical effect of a placebo. Amazing. I love placebos.

Now, I am not here using the term ‘magical thinking’ in any other than a pejorative way; I think it is bad, practised by too many and encouraged by everyone else.

Look, I once hated, and am now delighted, to tell you there is no such thing as magic. However there is one heck of a lot of magical thinking and it runs something like this:

  • “I’ve eaten junk all my life, exercised inconsistently, not at all or badly, slept poorly, coped with my inner rage by denial, violence or ‘ulcers’ and will now put cinnamon on my Honey Nut Cerrios and cure my diabetes.”
  • “I work long hours, sleep too little, eat anything that is served at business meetings, cheat on my wife, yell at my kids and can fix this with long slow runs just before bed or very early each day; especially when I haven’t had enough sleep and need the pick me up.”

You can come up with your own ‘magical thinking’ scenarios. You might even be tempted to think that they illustrate the kind of creative associative thinking that is a good sense of the term rather than the pejorative one I advocate. Afterall cinnamon does lower blood glucose; I didn’t say it didn’t. Long runs are one of my greatest past addictions; I loved the runner’s high that kicked in about 45 minutes to an hour into a long run.

So ‘magical thinking’ is more than a clutch of untrue assertions; it is the belief that there is some short-circuit around the chain of being bequeathed to us by many, many thousands of years of evolutionary necessity, carefully honed out of the rock of the possible by time, survival and the anti-entropic lacuna in space-time that is our home in this universe. Counterfactually it could have been anything but, to use that worn out but somehow comforting cliché, ‘it is what it is.’

The bad judgement of even being fooled into believing that ‘whole grain’ cereals are good for you, that the meat of sick animals could be good for you, that sitting all day hunched before a glowing screen could be good for you, your family, for society; the cost of such bad judgement, is bad health, sick families, sick societies, low testosterone, a sense of meaninglessness, manic belief in transformation rather than hard work, e.g. we will be ‘saved’ by Google and information reconfiguration and distribution. Nope; you have to ‘eat right, exercise right and have a life-giving spiritual discipline.’ It is that simple but the path from here to there is only found embracing the broad conceptual over-view I am advocating and then carefully finding your way with calipers, slide rules, computers, data, meditation, VO2 machines, prayer, shopping for food, preparing that dish of Brussels sprouts as if you were robing a bride for her wedding; with care and love.

It is only magical thinking that accounts for the densely packed, unwieldy load of bad judgement that has led to so many sad, sick people. Magical thinking excused the bad judgement because at each point on the path to our current chaos no one thought, hmmm, feeding cattle grain even though it makes them sick is a great idea because we all know eating unhealthy food is wonderful. No, instead some version of a self-annointed savior of starving humanity and his sidekick the greedy businessman surmised that this was the way to a steak on every table and money in the cattlemen’s association’s pocket, not the cattleman himself by the way. One link in the chain.

Somewhere in the imagination of man magical thinking endorsed a long chain of bad judgements. And here we are… trying to figure out how to put Lipitor in the water, Botox in our foreheads and meaning in our lives by using ‘facebook.’

Smile, Have Fun and God Speed,

Dr. Mike

Hypocrisy disclaimer: Botox is fine, I use ‘facebook’ and actually, occasionally, write prescriptions for Lipitor. It’s not that easy.

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