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When was the last time you stated a thought like, “At least we haven’t completely lost our republic,” and followed that with a quickly stated, “Knock on wood,” looking for a wooden object or knocking your forehead as an easy substitute? Or made a wish when blowing out candles on your birthday cake? Or carried a rabbit’s foot or other favored item for good luck? Many of us follow these practices and sometimes even realize that we do them playfully, without an expectation for results. Mostly. These wishes and desires are a form of “magical thinking” and are relatively harmless in most situations. But I propose that in this time of COVID-19, magical thinking has infected the worldwide population.
What is the definition of magical thinking? Here is one definition:
Magical thinking refers to the idea that you can influence the outcome of specific events by doing something that has no bearing on the circumstances.
Another similar definition is here:
Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation. For example: ‘I got up on the left side of the bed today; therefore, it will rain.’
When we hold these assertions lightly and don’t seriously embrace them, they usually don’t interfere with our lives. But magical thinking has dominated the psyche of many Americans in these times to the degree that they are imposing on the lives of many and are damaging relationships with others who refuse to accept their beliefs.
So what are the signs of magical thinking today? It depends on whom you ask.
I propose that if you are making decisions about your health based on only subjective information, fear, and anxiety, you are likely vulnerable to magical thinking. Unfortunately, when there is conflicting information available, but people are overwhelmed with apprehension, they may be reluctant or even unable to look at the complexity of data. Their fear will dictate the steps they take to “protect themselves” and their families. Magical thinking guides them to wear masks indoors and outdoors, even in their cars. It tells them to avoid other people, to always maintain 6 feet between themselves and others. It insists that they reject vaccines for a variety of reasons (they’re in good health, they hate shots, the shots don’t work, the shots don’t work well … and so on). At the same time, refusing to take the vaccine can be a reasonable choice for some people (preexisting conditions; previously contracting the disease, thereby having natural immunity). The key point is to determine whether magical thinking is involved or whether sensible decisions based on your own personal situation is your mode of operation.
Without question, magical thinking is likely involved when people decide to mandate that others accept their views. The Karens of the world will not be satisfied until each and every person complies with their demands. We know enough about COVID-19 at this point to assume that mandated requirements are unacceptable. We still live in a free society that allows us to make personal choices about our health, and magical thinking should have no role in this process.
Regrettably, Joe Biden and his administration rely heavily on magical thinking. People will die if everyone is not vaccinated. (Someone should tell him that some people will die anyway, regardless.) Masks provide protection for everyone. (People must weigh whether the discomfort and social consequences, such as limiting our seeing the faces of others, are worth it.) Insisting that drugs that have been proven in the past won’t help in treatment. (Why isn’t anyone conducting trials?) Dr. Anthony Fauci should be the poster boy for magical thinking; no matter what he says, the science no longer plays a role in his recommendations, which sound more and more like mandates.
If you have people in your life who are stuck in magical thinking, is there anything you can do? Basically, I believe there are two strategies for helping them, if they will allow you. One step is to explain what magical thinking “looks like”; you can give them examples that they have demonstrated to you. The second step is to help them identify the inconsistences in the information given by the “experts” and their possible motivations for expounding them.
These are the signs of magical thinking:
- They obsess about the virus, and they insist on following several steps to protect themselves.
- They have stopped doing most of their usual activities, even though their decisions may not contribute to their avoiding the virus.
- They have damaged relationships because of the limitations they have put on their own lives or the criticisms they have made of others who are not following the same practices.
- They refuse to accept the recommendations for drugs that could mitigate the effect of the virus if administered early, thus leaving them more vulnerable if they contract the virus.
How can they work at minimizing or eliminating magical thinking?
- Read studies or executive summaries of studies that present both sides of exposure to or treatment of COVID-19. If they are intimidated by the scientific language, they should ask someone who is familiar with it to determine whether the study used scientific criteria, including a large enough sample and rigorous procedures.
- Require the experts to cite studies to back up their claims; consider that the government’s efforts are guided by their demand for power and control.
- Realize our temptation to rely on experts as a shortcut to making the effort of learning for ourselves. Don’t be afraid to study both sides of an issue. The more you take those steps, the more competent and the less stressed you will be.
It’s important to remind our anxious friends that COVID-19 will be with us, in one form or another, forever. If they are to live their lives with richness and meaning, they are best off making choices and decisions that contribute to that type of lifestyle. In the beginning, they may find their anxiety increases. Over time, however, they will likely feel empowered by their knowledge and their determination to master their lives and live freely.Published in