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Le Défi magique, volume 1

François Laplantine
Jean-Baptiste Martin

Magie et spiritisme : approches psychologiques

Magical thinking in contemporary western societies a psychological view

John A. Saliba


Durant les deux dernières décennies, les sociétés occidentales ont été les témoins d'une résurgence des pensées et pratiques occultes. Les psychologues ont été intéressés par les pensées magiques qui se trouvent derrière ces croyances et pratiques. La magie est considérée comme un excellent exemple de pensées non rationnelles et non scientifiques, qui contredisent les lois de cause à effet. En tant que telle, elle réclame une explication psychologique.
Quatre modèles de pensées magiques ont dominé les écrits psychologiques. Ce sont les pensées historique, évolutionniste, psychopathologique et thérapeutique. Ces différents modèles sont confrontés à de sérieux problèmes lorsqu’on les applique aux pratiques modernes.
Différents matériaux théoriques ainsi que des approches méthodologiques sont nécessaires à l’avancement de la compréhension psychologique des pensées et comportements magiques. Les modèles distinguant entre différentes sortes de magie, et considérant la magie, la religion et la science comme des éléments constitutifs de la pensée humaine, plutôt qu’une étape du développement, semblent pouvoir apporter une meilleure base dans la compréhension et l’explication de la résurgence contemporaine de l’occulte.

Texte intégral

1Belief in magic and the practice of magical rituals have a long history. In Western society periodic revivals in the magical arts have been well documented (Ellwood 1988). Over the last few decades scholars from a variety of disciplines have endeavored to understand their origin, persistence, and appeal. The popularity of the occult sciences, the rise of neopaganism and witchcraft, and the concern about Satanism all give evidence to the fascination of magic in a world dominated by the advances made in the natural sciences.

2Psychologists have stressed that magic refers to the belief that there are invisible forces in nature that can be controlled by ritual behavior. These forces or powers are not subject to the ordinary laws of nature. Wolman (1989, p. 206) defines magic as «the art of producing desired effects and control of natural phenomena through various techniques such as prayer and incantation». The magical worldview sees the cosmos as full of supernatural and/or preternatural elements that obstruct and interfere with human intentions and desires. The practice of magic is an attempt to influence, direct, and control these forces.

3Underlying magic is a conception of cause and effect that differs substantially from that of modern science. From a psychological viewpoint, magic involves a thought process, a way of linking events and occurrences in a manner that contradicts natural laws and that is not amenable to scientific testing (American Psychological Association 1988, p. 122). Magic is associated with the «omnipotence of thought,» which refers to the belief common among children that persons and events can be influenced and controlled by human thought (English and English 1958, p. 302). And because magical thinking (which underlies all occult behavior) seems so opposed to the cause and effect laws that are the hallmarks of modern science, psychologists have linked it with irrationality (Zusne 1985, p. 698).

1. Psychological models of magical thinking

4Psychology has been interested in understanding magic both as a thought process and as an aspect of human personality. Four basic models historical, developmental, psychopathological, and therapeutic have been employed in the psychological disciplines to explain the prevalence of magic.

a) The Historical Model

  • 1 For a critical review of their works, consult Evans-Pritchard (1965).

5Among the first major contributors to the study of magic as part of the history of the human race are James Frazer (1922) and Lucie Lévy-Bruhl (1966) who influenced anthropological theory and research in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries1. Their writings have left their mark on a host of scholars in different fields, even though their major tenets are now considered obsolete by anthropologists. Frazer and Lévy-Bruhl studied magic among primitive people (namely those tribal societies that are relatively small-scale, have no written literature, and possess a relatively simple technology) and compared it with similar beliefs in larger, more technologically advanced civilizations.

6Frazer argued that the human race progressed through three separate historical stages, namely magic, religion, and science. The earliest stage, magic, developed out of the human desire to control nature. Reflecting on natural events and occurrences, human beings looked for standard laws that might lead them to influence the world around them. But since the mental capacities of these people were somewhat weak, they made a fundamental error in association. They concluded that cause and effect were governed by two laws: 1) the law of similarity, which maintains that like produces like, and 2) the law of contact, which held that people could be influenced by remote touch. These were the two laws of magic. Magic thus was of two kinds: 1) imitative or homeopathic and 2) contagious.

7Religion, argued Frazer, developed when it was realized, probably through observation, that magical rites did not work and that, consequently, the laws of magic did not really exist. Control of nature was then placed in the hands of supernatural forces (gods or spirits) who had to be supplicated rather than controlled. This was the second stage (religion) of the development of the human race. The final stage, that of science, is marked by the discovery of the correct laws of nature and should, theoretically at least, lead to the demise of both magic and religion.

8Lévy-Bruhl, a philosopher by training, was primarily interested in primitive systems of thought. Relying on accounts of magical behavior in anthropological and ethnographic literature, he arrived at the conclusion that primitive and civilized thought processes differed not only in degree but also in kind. Two main features dominated primitive mentality: it was prelogical and mystical. The first feature is directly opposed to science in that it brings together things and events which are not connected at all. It is, further, uncritical and introduces supernatural explanations that cannot be put to the test. The primitive mind was prelogical not because of some mental disability, but rather because its was indifferent to the law of contradiction and operated on a system that juxtaposed events in a manner that cannot be harmonized with logic.

9The second feature of primitive mentality was its mystical inclination. This means that early humans believed in supernatural forces that constantly influenced their nature and daily lives as a whole. They were convinced that the natural and supernatural, though distinct, could not be separated. They lived in a world of» mystic participation» that brought together events and people through supernatural means. This association has, according to Lévy-Bruhl, been rejected under the impact of modern scientific discoveries.

10Both Frazer and Lévy-Bruhl were trying to explain the intellectual differences between early and modern humans. Their approach was evolutionary in the sense that it was aimed at showing how human beings progressed from a lower form of thinking and behavior to a more advanced one. They assumed that magical thought was normal in primitive societies and, hence, never interpreted it as a sign of mental illness or psychopathology.

11From a psychological viewpoint the question is whether the historical model is suitable to explain the behavior of those individuals in Western society who take up magical practices that are not part of mainstream culture. In other words, can the rise of magical thinking in the West be explained as a psychological regression to an earlier human stage? It so, then it could be indicative of serious mental and/or personality dysfunctions.

b) The Child Development Model

12The second model is based on the work of Piaget whose analysis of the mental development of children has left an indelible mark on child psychology. Two areas of child development studied by Piaget are relevant to this discussion: 1) the child’s view of physical causality and 2) its conception of the world. Piaget shows how the first stage in the development of human thought, that occurs at the age of five, is «magical». He observes that the causes that a child ascribes to happenings do not fall under the natural laws of cause and effect. For instance, for the child, clouds are alive and conscious. We make them move by walking and they obey our commands (Piaget 1930, pp. 61-62) The child has a tendency «to introduce living personal forces where we should make use only of weight and inertia» (Ibid., p. 87).

13In explaining how the child conceives of the world, Piaget borrows Lévy-Bruhl’s theory of mystic participation which is, in fact, a magical way of relating to the universe. He distinguishes (Piaget 1929, pp. 133-34) between four types of causal connections: 1) magic by participation between actions and things; 2) magic by participation between thought and things; 3) magic by participation between objects; and 4) magic by participation of purpose. In essence, his theory advances the position that, at a certain stage in their development, children connect phenomena, objects, people, and ideas that cannot be linked at all, unless recourse is had to magical notions.

14Piaget defends his reliance on Lévy-Bruhl’s theory of primitive mentality. He argues: «It may be that the child's idea of ‘participation’ differs from that of the primitive, but they resemble one another, and this is sufficient to authorize us in choosing our vocabulary from among the expressions which have been found most adequate in describing primitive thought» (Piaget 1929, p. 132).

15Underlying Piaget’s thought is the assumption that the mental development of the individual and of the human race go through certain parallel stages. Piaget drew no conclusions on the state of mind of primitive people. He did have, however, some definite opinions on the child’s magical thinking that is animistic in character. «Magic and autism,» he writes, «are therefore two different sides of one and the same phenomenon that confusion between the self and the world which destroys both logical truth and objective existence» (Piaget 1930, p. 303). Magical thinking in children is thus a weakness that stems from the fact that their maturity has not yet reached its full potential.

16Reflecting on magical ideas among adults, Piaget observes that they may be present «among normal and civilized adults». In those cases when «the boundary between the self and the external world becomes momentarily vague and uncertain», «the weakening of the sense of personality leads to realism [that is, of thought] and the realism to more or less clear magical ideas» (Piaget 1929, p. 162). The persistence of magical thinking in adults is logically explained either by postulating that the child’s development was stunted or that the adult regressed to an infantile stage. In either case magical thought is indicative of pathology that requires treatment. Further, the linking of magical thinking to autism corroborates the view that magical behavior is a form of pathology. For autism implies that the individual’s internal state does not conform with reality. The autistic person sees things in terms of wishes and dreams and can be easily led to believe that his or her fanciful wishes can bring about concrete results.

c) The Psychopathology Model

17The third model of magical thinking that dominates Western psychiatric literature links it unequivocally with pathology. The DSM-III-R (American Psychiatric Association 1987, p. 401) explains magical thinking, which has become a technical term in psychiatry, as follows:

The individual believes that his or her thoughts, words, or actions might, or will in some manner cause or prevent a specific outcome in some way that defies normal laws of cause and effect. Example: A man believed that if he said a specific prayer three times each night, his mother’s death might be prevented indefinitely; a mother believed that if she had an angry thought her child would become ill.

Magical thinking may be part of ideas of reference or may reach delusional proportions when the individual maintains a firm conviction about the belief despite evidence to the contrary.

Magical thinking is seen in children, in people of primitive cultures, and in Schizotypal Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

18This manual makes a clear connection between magical thinking in nonliterate societies and in children and adults in Western culture a procedure that has become standard in psychiatric literature (e.g., Goldenson 1970, pp. 715-16; Eidelberg 1968, p. 282). It seems to take for granted that its presence in primitive peoples and children is «normal». However, in adult members of Western societies, superstitiousness, belief in clairvoyance, telepathy, and ESP (all examples of magical thinking) are listed among the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia (American Psychiatric Association 1987p. 195).

  • 2 Tobacyk and Wilkinson (1990) found direct correlations between magical thinking and paranormal bel (...)

19Others interpret magical thought and behavior as a sign that the individual may be deluding himself or herself or regressing into an earlier stage in order to avoid reality. The neurotic person uses magical rites as a defense mechanism (e.g., against anxiety) to retain the unconscious belief in omnipotence. The Magical Ideation Scale has been devised precisely to identify neurotic tendencies (Eckblad and Chapman 1983). All kinds of occult behavior and paranormal beliefs receive a negative psychological evaluation2. Windholz and Diamant (1974), in a study of individuals who believe in reincarnation, witchcraft, UFOs, ESP, and astrology, conclude that they were impulsive, reflective, neurotic, and schizoid.

20A more sophisticated analysis of magical thinking is offered by Zuzne and Jones (1989) who admit that magic is a universal phenomenon and has roots in fundamental psychological processes. The uncertainty of life, the human quality of self awareness, and a misunderstanding of causation and the laws of probability all play a role in the persistence of magical thinking. These two psychologists argue that psychopathology does not cause magical thinking (p. 261) nor does the latter lead to psychopathology. The persistence of magical thinking «into adulthood or [its] easy resurgence under stress in an adult can be seen as a neurotic manifestation» (p. 262).

21The link between magical thinking and pathology continues to dominate current psychiatric literature. Nagy and Szatmari (1988), for instance, after examining children between the ages of 7 and 18 who suffered from schizotypal personality disorders, remark that all of them were inclined to magical thinking, bizarre preoccupations, social isolation, and social anxiety. Pine (1986), in another study of children, confirms the presence of magical thinking and concludes that it was a desperate reliance on an ultimately maladaptive survival mechanism.

22Other psychiatrists have documented the presence of magical thinking in a variety of patients they treated. The research of Inbody and Ellis (1985), for example, finds it present among those suffering from two eating disorders, namely bulimia and anorexia. Others (Rosberg and Stunden 1990) observe that there are unmistakable similarities between magical thought and delusional accusations and auditory hallucinations, all of which are typical psychotic defense mechanisms that do not produce healing. Magical thinking results from schizophrenia (Fenton and McGlashan 1989) and occurs in obsessive compulsive disorders (Sarwer-Foner 1987). Some studies have shown that magical thinking develops in adult children of alcoholics (Schumrum and Hartman 1988) and in middle adolescents who use drugs (Golden and Schwartz-Klein 1988).

  • 3 These same authors also found that their patients used drugs and had lower levels of self-esteem.

23In psychiatric literature magical thinking is an escape from reality. It is an attempt to put aside anxieties rather than confront them. Feinsilver (1983, p. 537) writes that «borderline patients use magical thinking to create around them a comforting sense of being protected by an omnipotent maternal presence that wards off anxieties associated with the threat of separation». Baird (1982) observes that patients with impaired superegos may exhibit magical thinking which is a maladaptive and primitive defense mechanism. And Tennant-Clark and her associates (1989) conclude that adolescents become involved in occult rituals because they «experienced feelings of inadequacy and loss of control»3. People who have recourse to magic, rather than coping with their problems, are more likely to aggravate them, since magic draws them away from facing reality.

d) The Therapeutic Model

  • 4 This view has found some popularity in psychology. Alcock (1981), for instance, thinks that one of (...)

24A final model that has been proposed by some scholars considers magic as performing beneficial psychological functions. Consequently, magical thought and behavior can have healing effects. In anthropological literature the presence of magical rites is said to provide reassurance, especially where scientific knowledge is insufficient or lacking, and to reduce fear and anxiety4. In Malinowski’s (1954, p. 29) words they play an indispensable role in the «domain of the unaccountable and adverse influences as well as the great unearned increment of fortunate coincidence». They may provide culturally adaptive and adjustive responses (Kluckhohn 1944). Malinowski’s theory has been applied to explain Western divinatory practices, like water-witching in the United States (Vogt and Hyman 1959) and ritual customs connected with sport activities (Gmelch 1989; cf. also Venturi 1989).

25Ehrenwald (1977) distinguishes between healing magic (such as rainmaking in nonliterate societies), faith-healing (such as the miraculous healings at Lourdes), and spiritual healing (such as that practiced by Christian Science). In each case the therapeutic impact is based on three elements: 1) the healer’s belief in the efficacy of his or her actions; 2) the patient’s corresponding trust in the healer’s power; and 3) the support given by the patient’s relatives and friends. While questioning the direct link that such magicoreligious rituals might have to healing, Ehrenwald concedes that they may have some psychosomatic results. Besides, these rites might elicit catharsis or other reactions that are necessary in the healing process of many psychological illnesses. They may also diminish stress, though this is not, as has been noted above, necessarily therapeutic (see Zusne and Jones 1989, p. 262).

2. Discussion: some critical reflexions on the psychopathology of magical thinking

26The first three psychological models are based on the presupposition that scientific reasoning and logic are indicators of a mature, healthy personality. Magical thinking is opposed to such reasoning and is, therefore, a sign of human weakness, illness, and/or backwardness. Even if this is correct, it does not follow that magical thinking is the same in undeveloped children, psychiatric patients in Western society, and members of primitive societies. Since the psychological makeup of all these individuals must be quite different, it would seem more appropriate to start with the hypothesis that there are various kinds of magical operations that need to be taken into consideration.

27The historical model relies on Frazer’s and/or Lévy-Bruhl’s theory to explain the resurgence of magical thinking in contemporary society. While most anthropologists maintain that Frazer’s analysis of the nature of magic and its laws is still useful, they have discarded his theory that magic was an early and mentally-inferior stage in the history of humankind. In like manner, no anthropologist would subscribe to Lévy-Bruhl’s view that people in nonliterate societies are prelogical and mystical in their thinking. In fact, Lévy-Bruhl himself abandoned his own hypothesis. Reliance on outdated anthropological theories is not the best way to understand the revival of magic in contemporary Western culture.

28The view that the adult members of primitive society are intellectual inferiors to modern human beings has long been shattered by anthropological research, such as that of Lévi-Strauss (1966). Psychological studies that link primitive thought with modern pathology fail to take into account that members of nonliterate societies are engaged in logical reasoning along with magical rites in their daily struggle for survival. To give but one example, hunting rituals that were clearly magical in intent were always accompanied by the actual hunt for which creative tools were invented. Besides, in these cultures, magic was part of the culture and was consequently passed on from one generation to the next. Its presence, just like that of other cultural items, such as class distinctions, child-rearing customs, and food preferences, was never seriously questioned. To link it with pathology would make all members of primitive cultures eligible for psychotherapeutic treatment by modern Western psychiatrists.

29Research in child development has convincingly demonstrated that the child has not yet reached its potential and intellectual maturity and goes through a stage where some form of magical thinking (maybe better called fantasy) is dominant. But whether this model is applicable to adults is, to say the least, debatable. To compare children, who employ magical thinking as a phase in their growth, with those adults, who revert to magical thought in some very specific areas of their lives, is hardly a legitimate procedure. It seems to beg the question that needs to be proved that magical thought is the same in both subjects.

  • 5 For a survey of psychiatric views of ESP, see Ullman (1977). The author ends by predicting that «p (...)

30The psychopathological model rests on the hypothesis that magical thought is indicative of personality disorders. Zusne and Jones relegate all occult phenomena, including ESP, superstition, and magic, to «anomalistic psychology,» which refers to the study of human behavior that deviates from the norm5. The issue is who determines the norm? But even if the norm refers to the average or most common, it doesn’t necessarily follow that deviant behavior is pathological. To automatically link occult beliefs and practices with all kinds of serious psychological problems including neuroticism, inadequate mental, personal, and social adjustment, lower level of critical thinking, and fantasy proneness is reminiscent of the circular argument: pathology is sometimes expressed in magical thought and behavior which are themselves signs of pathology.

31Further, the fact that magical thinking exists in modern secular societies does not necessarily connote a psychopathological condition. Magical behavior that occurs, for instance, in sports, can hardly be adduced as evidence for the presence of mental weaknesses and serious personality flaws in athletes (Gmelch 1989). In like manner, the magical belief among health care professionals that psychiatric patients are more likely to be agitated when there is a full moon is hardly a sign of the former’s pathology (Pilette 1983).

  • 6 Some forms of Satanism are obviously more open to the pathological model. Consult Moriarty and Sto (...)

32If magic is universally found in all societies, then it coexists with rational behavior and need not always be opposed to logic. It may be complementary in the sense that the principles of magic and of science are applied in different areas of one’s life. Thus, for instance, many people, who have joined a neopagan group and practice magical rituals, still successfully hold regular jobs that require the application of the scientific laws of cause and effect. Some individuals who get involved in various types of occult practices can at times be hardly distinguished from «normal» people. They should not be lumped with those pathological characters who indulge in criminal, sadistic, and masochist behavior6.

33The therapeutic model of magic appears, at first sight, to offer a better explanation for the prevalence and persistence of magical thought and behavior. However, it fails to show why some people relieve their stress by reverting to magic. Nor does it answer the more fundamental question of why stress should be relieved by magic at all. The therapeutic model is faulty not only because it is another form of the deprivation theory, but also because it is still consistent with the view that adults who have recourse to magic suffer from serious pathology.


34Psychological studies of magical thinking are distinguished by the underlying assumption that the healthy personality explains events and phenomena, not by having recourse to supernatural agencies or magical powers, but by ascribing logical, rational, and natural solutions. The inclusion of prayer as a form of magical thinking betrays the traditional psychological antipathy to both religion and magic. Recent religious and occult revivals – including the Unification Church, Fundamentalist Churches, and beliefs in UFOs and ESP – are all cited as examples of irrationality and magic (Peele 1982, p. 125). It is, therefore, not surprising that anything dealing with the occult is assigned to the field of psychopathology.

35The popularity of occult topics among well-educated people who function well in modern industrial societies indicates that the presence of magical thinking cannot be relegated to those who are intellectually inferior, regressed, or retarded. Though clinical evidence suggests that some psychopaths do have recourse to magic, it does not logically follow that all magic is a sign of pathology. It seems clear that psychologists and psychiatrists need to shed some of their well-entrenched thinking in order to make any substantial advances in «anomalistic psychology». Both theory and method in the field could benefit from fresh approaches and research tools.

  • 7 Other distinctions are also possible. Albas and Albas (1989), for example, note that magic increas (...)

36From a theoretical point of view, several options, which do not treat all magical behavior as pathological, are available. The first is to distinguish different kinds and/or levels of magic and to avoid, for example, equating the magical behavior of adults with infantilism. Truzzi (1971) distinguishes between occultisms that advanced scientific evidence for their belief systems from those that did not and proposes that occultism be classified into five categories7. In like manner, it can be recognized that not all magical thought and behavior is opposed to logical thought and rationality. As Lesser and Paisner (1985, p. 57) suggest, «magical concepts of causality can develop into maturity and exist side by side with logic». The magic-observed among primitives, children, healthy adults, and psychiatric-patients may be quite different in spite of its surface similarity.

37Another approach could be developed from Jung’s (1960) theory of synchronicity which postulates that magic consists of a noncausal linking of two events in a meaningful way. Stated differently, magical thinking in «normal» adults could be an effort to provide meaning rather than a substitution of the scientific rules of cause and effect based on empirical testing and observation. One is reminded of Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) classic study of Azande witchcraft which he interpreted as a philosophy of chance that in no way diminished, or interfered with, the individuals' ability to make logical deductions about cause and effect based on empirical evidence.

38On a more basic theoretical level, one may postulate with Guthrie (1980) that there are some fundamental continuities between the mental activity of scientific and religious (and magical) thinkers. This would require a different psychological approach to religion and magic than that which has dominated the Western psychological disciplines since Freud.

39From a methodological point of view, psychology and psychiatry need first to abandon the identification of adults in nonliterate cultures with children and psychiatric patients in Western societies. Next, the gratuitous assumption that «the best documented types of anomalous experiences are often those described by psychotic patients» (Reed 1988, p. 10) must be reevaluated. After all, to quote just one example, most psychics and modern channelers have never been «psychotic patients».

40Besides using larger samples, research has to focus on magical thought in the average population and in modern occult groups. There are, for instance, tens of thousands of individuals involved in neopaganism where the magical worldview figures prominently. Yet there are no studies that explore their personalities. Psychiatrists and psychologists might gain new insights into magical thinking if they adopted some of the methods, like participant observation, in their studies on magical thinking and behavior in the contemporary occult revival.

41Psychology and psychiatry can certainly make an important contribution to our understanding of why people in Western culture are attracted to magic. It is possible, however, that the answer to this question may lie more in the analysis of magic as a worldview that provides meaning in a rapidly changing world, than in the examination of those psychologically and/or mentally disturbed patients whose behavior is dominated by magical thinking.



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USNE, Leonard, and Warren H. JONES. 1989. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking. Hillsdale, NY: L. Erlbaum.


1 For a critical review of their works, consult Evans-Pritchard (1965).

2 Tobacyk and Wilkinson (1990) found direct correlations between magical thinking and paranormal beliefs. See especially pp.262-63, where the authors list comparable items from the paranormal belief and the magical ideation scales.

3 These same authors also found that their patients used drugs and had lower levels of self-esteem.

4 This view has found some popularity in psychology. Alcock (1981), for instance, thinks that one of the reasons for the persistence of magical thinking and behavior is that they might reduce fear and anxiety.

5 For a survey of psychiatric views of ESP, see Ullman (1977). The author ends by predicting that «psi effects will move from an eccentric, anomalous position to whatever its rightful place may ultimately prove to be» (p. 572).

6 Some forms of Satanism are obviously more open to the pathological model. Consult Moriarty and Story (1990) and Bourget et al. (1988).

7 Other distinctions are also possible. Albas and Albas (1989), for example, note that magic increases in complexity and scientific sophistication as it moves from nonliterate to contemporary societies.


University of Detroit Mercy.

© Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1994

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