The Benefits of Magical Thinking

21 million Americans suffer from Paraskevidekatriaphobia or fear of Friday the 13th. Yet, according to a 2008 Dutch study, Friday the 13th is statistically safer than other Fridays because people either choose to stay at home or those that do venture out, take more care than usual.     

13Yesterday, I was privileged to attend a lecture at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum entitled The Natural Origins of Supernatural Thinking given by Professor Bruce Hood (Bristol University). Hood provided curious anecdotes such as that cited above in a very matter of fact way. As an experimental psychologist specialising in developmental cognitive neuroscience, his major research interests include discovering the cognitive processes behind adult magical thinking.

According to Hood, we humans are pretty much hard-wired to develop beliefs as a way to make sense of our world and these beliefs carry with them manifest consequences. We’re also hard-wired to impose structure and order in our lives by developing certain rituals around those beliefs (touch on wood) and one of the most intriguing involves what Hood calls sympathetic magic – or the belief in naturally occurring correspondences (or sympathies) between things such as food, colours, animals, gem stones, fabrics, plants, and days of the week. Imagine two violins. Sympathetic vibration occurs when two strings are tune to the same pitch. When one is plucked, the other sings out ‘in sympathy’.

The implications of Hood’s work for coaching are two-fold:

1.    When someone believes that she cannot do XYZ, then at least until she changes her belief, she probably can’t do. Likewise, if she believes that she can do ABC, then, it’s a pretty good bet that she will. One of the primary goals of coaching is to eliminate (or strengthen) such beliefs as needed and this is why a good coach focuses less on asking ‘why’ than ‘what’. For example, if I ask my client ‘why’ she feels so terrible, then in answering, she is only reinforcing her negative beliefs about herself. But in answering the question ‘what’ situations make her feel terrible and what do they share in common, she has a genuine opportunity to examine the origin and triggers of her beliefs.

2.    Let’s face it, change is hard work. If it weren’t then New Year resolutions would stand a better chance of success. But if my client creates a ritual or talisman that can rely upon in times of stress to remind her of the changes she’s chosen to make, she’s in a stronger position. Even better, if her chosen rituals and talismans are in line with long-accepted sympathies, she might accomplish even more. For example, if she has an important meeting or interview set for Thursday, she might tap into the ‘luck’ traditionally associated with Jupiter, the planetary ruler of Thursday. Choosing to wear a royal blue dress or suit or maybe a piece of lapis lazuli, turquoise, or amethyst jewellery reminds her of this ‘luck and who knows but that this might give her little extra boost.

Certainly Professor Hood would not be surprised if it did.

In his book Supersense: From Superstition to Religion – The Brain Science of Belief, Professor Hood reminds us that Tony Blair always wore the same pair of shoes when answering Prime Minister’s Questions and that John McEnroe notoriously refused to step on the white lines of the tennis court between points. He also reminds us that President Barack Obama played a game of basketball the morning of his victory in the Iowa primary and continued the ‘tradition’ the day of every following primary.

Let’s face it, most are us are more into magical thinking than we might like to admit and according to both Hood and those Dutch researchers, this is probably not such a bad thing.

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