Stuff Happens For a Reason: Or, Magical Thinking?

In this year’s The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, science journalist Matthew Hutson proposes that everyone uses at least one—and often more than one—type of magical thinking on a regular basis. Courtesy of psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, these are Hutson’s “7 laws”:

1. Objects carry essences: “…(W)e attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire.”

2. Symbols have power: “According to the principle known as the ‘law of similarity,’ we equate a symbol with the thing it stands for. In one experiment testing this idea, people refused to throw a dart at a picture of their own mother’s face but were able to take dead aim at a photo of Hitler.”

3. Actions have distant consequences: “In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our seemingly unpredictable lives, we build up our own personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts.”

4. The mind knows no bounds: Because we tend to “count the hits but not the misses,” sometimes we feel psychic related to the way certain events fall into place.

5. The soul lives on: In “our desire to avoid thinking about our own mortality” we “invent and hold onto a belief in the afterlife.”

6. The world is alive: “…(W)e attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones.”

7.  Everything happens for a reason: “The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us…Perhaps your home was spared (or not) during a hurricane, tornado, fire, or other disaster. Why were you spared–or not–and why did other people have the opposite happen to them? As Hutson points out, ‘Coincidences…are the manna of magical thinking’.”

Hutson tells a Wired interviewer that this last law of magical thinking is his favorite because it’s so often used. He elaborates:

Let’s say you miss your bus. It’s easy to take that as meant-to-be. Perhaps you think you have really bad luck and the universe is out to get you. But then you can also turn that around and maybe say, ‘I was meant to miss this thing for a positive reason. Maybe on the next bus or train, I’m supposed to strike up conversation with someone interesting and something good will come out of that.’ There are everyday scenarios where we tend to read meaning into things automatically, without thinking, just because we have this teleological bias that leaves us to see intentionality in the world.

You can apply that to bigger and broader things. Maybe you lose your job, or get dumped by your girlfriend or boyfriend, or someone close to you dies. If you see that as meant to happen, that can help you see the silver lining and cope with whatever has happened and grow in the aftermath. It can help you avoid the sense that you’re living in a chaotic universe that doesn’t care about what happens to you. Which is probably the truth, but is not a comforting thought. It’s sometimes better to see meaning in things.

What if everything does not in fact happen for a reason? What if bad stuff can come about simply by chance? What if we never really know why horrible tragedies happen?

As Paul Thagard, a philosopher with a specialization in cognitive science, asks in Psychology Today, “…(I)f the real isn’t rational, how can we cope with life’s disasters?” Here’s his (I think) satisfying answer—or about as satisfying as we can get:

Fortunately, even without religious or New Age illusions, people have many psychological resources for coping with the difficulties of life. These include cognitive strategies for generating explanations and problem solutions, and emotional strategies for managing the fear, anxiety, and anger that naturally accompany setbacks and threats. Psychological research has identified many ways to build resilience in individuals and groups, such as developing problem solving skills and strong social networks. Life can be highly meaningful even if some things that happen are just accidents. Stuff happens and you deal with it.

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