Why We Cling to Magical Thinking

With group fantasies, the world always makes sense.  Without them we would have to live closer to the uncertainties of incomplete insight.

These times remind us that millions of Americans have easily succumbed to magical thinking, to the embarrassment of much of the nation.  Magical thinking happens when a view is reinforced more by others than hard fact. This happens in every conceivable realm of American life: medicine and vaccines, allegations of “voter fraud,” rumors about celebrities, and—of course—our national politics.

There is a clear and convincing explanation for this collective response to not notice the obvious. We can continue to call the determination to believe a falsehood “magical thinking.” But a better term is “fantasy chaining.”  Let me explain.

Years ago, social scientist Robert Bales noted that groups of people put together in a room to solve a problem often reach a moment when there is a convergence of views around a preferred narrative. In many cases folks in the group didn’t have the facts or knowledge to make a judgement, but they had the support of other like-minded people around them. Think of a jury reaching a judgment on a case based on a shared prejudice. From this and other observations, Bales developed the idea of Interaction Process Analysis to track this convergence of opinions, building in part on the work of Sigmund Freud work in The Interpretation of Dreams.  It was good, but not quite clear enough. And any theory resting on Freudian assumption needs a lot more grounding.

Years later communication theorist Ernest Boorman at the University of Minnesota refined Bales’ ideas into a theory Fantasy Theme Analysis. His work created a convincing model that was finally up to speed and amazingly predictive.

Basically, Boorman acknowledged that—in the absence of good information—we tend to rely on members of our reference group and our natural compulsion to spin narratives that allow us to move us from tentative claims like “I suspect” to the certainties of “I know.”  That’s what a fantasy theme makes possible. He also noted the obvious: that it is easy for group fantasies to “chain out” to others with similar views.

Fantasy theme analysis helps us understand the contagion that happens when incomplete information combines with our hard-wired impulses to see the world in sets of self-contained stories. Each comes with with actors, motivations, preferred narratives, and final outcomes. We hate incomplete narratives, as when there is an airplane accident caused by bad weather.  So we are happy to construct our own secondary narratives, regardless of what solid evidence might oblige us to believe. We want to have human agents in the picture and at least partly responsible.

Here’s another example I have used in a text and my classes. I was sitting in my office one day in the 80s with a copy of the New York Times opened up on my desk. A colleague dropped by and, at the same time, we both noticed the paper’s front-page picture of the new Soviet version of a space shuttle. The Buran space craft looked exactly like the American version. Same wing shape. Same color. Same size. And without missing a beat we both blurted out the view that “they must have stolen the American design.” End of story. We “knew” it and we were ready to fill in the blanks. The similarity of the shape was enough to accept the fantasy of a theft of our plans.  All the while, we pretty much ignored the physics of space flight, which mandates similar design parameters for any earth-to-space vehicle.

With group fantasies, the world always makes sense.  Without them, we would have to live with the continuous uncertainties mandated by incomplete information. In my field there is a Latin phrase to describe humans as homo narrans: the species that tells stories. That is our priority. Truth is far back in the pack. Tacts are optional and often downright inconvenient for humans. It feels better and it is much easier to bolster each other’s fantasies.

In time, and the sooner the better, more Americans will rejoin the reality-based world.

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The Rough Ride of Identity Politics

This is a good time to draw upon our own sense of agency to remember what matters. 

The Presidency and momentous social issues that pass through the meat-grinder of national politics can leave a person exhausted.  We tend to identify first with close friends and family, followed by figures and characters presented via television, and sometimes even through publishing. Make no mistake, even Harry Potter is his own kind of public property.  Faithful readers have been him, and he is theirs.

Elections have a way of reminding us what can happen when we attach significance to a figure who is made to stand for our aspirations and, in some cases, our loathing. In my age and occupational bracket some of the figures that still loom large are JFK, Eugene McCarthy, Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Barack Obama. We tended to see their victories as our victories; their causes (mostly) as ours as well.

Europeans are generally more cautious about investing too much emotional energy in national figures. That’s why some still have royal families. But Americans tend to want our politicians to be public celebrities they can love. We want to experience the mostly fantasized presumption of parallel lives, values and experiences.

But recent research funded by the health system, Kaiser Permanente suggests that the price of political identification can be too high. They found elevated instances of heart attacks and strokes surrounding traumatic national events like our national elections or the attacks on the World Trade Center. Anger, anxiety and depression seem to be the mental health conditions that trigger the destructive mind-body connection. I suspect these elevated rates of serious and sudden illness also have a lot to do with the saturation coverage of cable and broadcast news, which present elections as referenda on who has been elevated to be among the ‘chosen’ Americans. For African Americans and many women, for example, the nation’s surprising support for Donald Trump feels like a national betrayal.


Your judgements about your own self-worth should be understood in terms of the places and people who benefit from your influence.

Without getting too woolly, It is times like these when it makes sense to check in with yourself: what you believe, what really matters, and how you have positively affected others. What are the reasons that explain why you are more than an object on the planet taking space?  If your candidate won, you have the luxury of taking an expansive view that allows the belief that much of the nation embraces your values. But if a favored candidate was rejected at the polls, it is a good time to remember to put yourself front-and-center. Your identity is the sum of a long biography that should matter. That is not changed by an election or the actions of anonymous individuals who may be 1500 miles away. And your known persona continues as before, through contacts and memories of acquaintances.

Surely our own sense of agency should be robust enough to stand alone.  We should expect more from ourselves than to live vicariously through a public figure we hardly know.