Of Spellbooks & Spirits: Why do we believe in magic?

If you’d lived in Ireland or Great Britain around 200 B.C., Halloween would have been completely different for you.

The Celtic holiday of Samhain marked the beginning of a new year, the end of the harvest, and the arrival of winter. It was the moment when the spiritual world entangled with the material one. The Celts built massive bonfires and dressed up as monsters to commune with ghosts and faeries. The druids, clad in their ritual apparel, gathered to receive wisdom from dead ancestors. The news they brought from the afterlife provided insight about the future of individuals, settlements, and nature itself. 

The ancestors of the Irish had, like every other ancient folk, a set of rigorous and picturesque beliefs that guided their lifestyle. Samhain was for them as relevant as Christmas or Lunar New Year are nowadays. In contrast, the only fervour around Halloween these days is to pick the perfect costume. The superstitious value of the holiday is almost entirely lost, even if some still celebrate it in a religious way.

Samhain is not the only Celtic tradition that lives up to this day. Beltane is a festival that celebrates the beginning of the summer. Taken from Edinburgh Festival.

So, what happened to the superstitions surrounding Halloween? Nowadays, (most) people leave no room for the paranormal, preferring hard science over anything else. It’s reached a point where the word “superstitious” becomes pejorative. And yet, some of us still put money on the existence of spells and the unseen. But, why would anyone believe in magic in the 21st century? The answer lies, of course, in psychology.

Child’s (Magic) Play

Let’s start off by saying that believing in the paranormal is not atypical. In fact, it’s actually quite normal! If you think about it, we all probably believed in the supernatural when we were children.[1] Back then, as we experienced the wonders of the world, our minds tried to answer an infinity of questions. Why are leaves green? Where do babies come from? Why is the sun warm? Because we didn’t know the answers, our minds resorted to imaginary purposes.[2]

This, kids, is how babies are delivered. Taken from Live Science

Imagination fed our minds with an alternative to the absence of “core knowledge” about the world.[3] It also serves a number of purposes for children. For instance, logical reasoning gets easier when kids imagine fantastic scenarios.[2] This is because they need their inner world to be consistent in order to be credible. Imagination is a powerful tool to exercise the mind and magic builds upon that fact. 

Now, children’s notion of “magic” sometimes encompasses two distinct processes. One of these is magical thinking, which refers to the ability to think outside the box. It is the mechanism that allows us to look for unexpected ways to change our environment.[4] The other is magical belief, which is the irrational credence that supernatural events occur in the real world.[5] 

Imagining fictional situations helps children develop cognitive skills… And puts every white wall out there in danger. Taken from School A Hoop.

Magical thinking is a powerful tool that promotes creativity and adaptability, social connections, stress management, and self-control.[4] Magical belief, on the other hand, often disappears once children grow and learn grounded information regarding the world. The problem starts when, instead of being outgrown, magical beliefs take roots in the child’s mind and prevail. 

Reason and Intuition

Why do some adults still hold a belief in magic? That’s pretty much the same as asking why we believe in the first place. The short answer to that is control. When we learn about the world around us, it becomes less scary. In times of stress and uncertainty, we tend to seek out patterns and structure in the chaos, even if they are imaginary.[6] We call this illusory pattern perception.

Do you see any figures or patterns in either of these images? Taken from Frontiers In

Even though it sounds strange, knowing how things work and the way events are connected fills us with the notion of control. To achieve that, we try to find a sense in the randomness of the world.[6] This goes from seeing figures in noise (like ghosts) to forming fictitious correlations (like conspiracies) or even creating superstitions.

Now then, how are some people able to “outgrow” these habits? Here’s where the dual process theory of decision-making comes in. Essentially, the mind has two systems to make all of our choices: System 1 is quick, automatic, and instinctive; System 2 is slow, thoughtful, and analytic.[7]

Although it’s easy to think our two systems fight against each other for control, they actually complement each other. Taken from Medium.

Some people are System 1 thinkers that trust their instincts. That usually leads to a superficial rejection of magical beliefs. On the other hand, System 2 thinkers can solidly reject the same myths.

Sceptical Beliefs

Don’t think, however, that System 2 thinkers are immune to superstitions. Even people who claim not to believe in magic can still act as if they did.[8] Maybe, deep down, they do. 

Suppose you are a firm non-believer in magic and superstition. You find yourself facing a witch, who offers you a spell to provide good fortune in your life. Would you allow her to cast it? What if, instead, the witch threatened you with a curse?

In 2005, 17 sceptic individuals faced these hypothetical scenarios. Over half of them agreed to have the good spell cast, just to ‘see what happened’. Conversely, none of them accepted the curse. Even though they didn’t believe in magic, they preferred not to take any chances.[9]

Suspicious, isn’t it?

Not many people would allow a witch to put a spell on them, even if they were fully sceptical of magic. After all, you never know.

Perhaps, the key lies in knowing which kind of superstitions are useful. You might know, for instance, someone who has a lucky pen for exams. Maybe you cross your fingers or knock on wood for good measure. These kinds of charms and rituals have their own power: using them actually improve your performance on certain tasks.[10]

There’s a form of magic at work here. Using these charms help people believe in themselves, which translates to an increase in self-efficacy.[11] Those who trust good luck charms also tend to be more optimistic and confident, and will therefore persevere longer on tasks.[12,13]

Why People Believe in Magic

Magic is cool, there’s no doubt about it. It’s so cool that it comes with us during our early years. Magical thinking helps children understand the world around them while they learn from it. It gives them tools to make sense of their environment and, later in life, reduce uncertainty and face unknown situations. 

Superstitious adults harbour similar beliefs because they, too, need to make sense of the chaos of reality. Our minds naturally try to connect the dots and seek the causes of things. Even if we believe ourselves to be scientific, rational, and sceptical, chances are we still engage in superstitious behaviour “just in case”. And that’s not a bad thing—it can give us some form of reassurance when things are unclear.

Halloween (or Samhain) can be seen in such a light. The Celtic customs of dressing up like monsters, lighting bonfires, and offering food to spirits were ways of regaining control. Through those actions, believers could sleep calmly with the certainty that the spirits had been appeased.

Who knows, maybe some of them were. 

Academic References

  1. Piaget, J. (1929). The child’s concept of the world. London, Routldge & Kegan Paul.
  2. Dias, M. G., & Harris, P. L. (1990). The influence of the imagination on reasoning by young children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 8(4), 305-318.
  3. Lindeman, M., & Aarnio, K. (2007). Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model. Journal of research in personality, 41(4), 731-744.
  4. Markle, D. T. (2010). The magic that binds us: Magical thinking and inclusive fitness. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 4(1), 18.
  5. Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture; Part 1: The origins of culture. London: Murray.
  6. Whitson, J. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. science, 322(5898), 115-117.
  7. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
  8. Subbotsky, E. (2014). The belief in magic in the age of science. Sage Open, 4(1), 2158244014521433.
  9. Subbotsky, E. (2005). The permanence of mental objects: testing magical thinking on perceived and imaginary realities. Developmental Psychology, 41(2), 301.
  10. Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21(7), 1014-1020.
  11. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.
  12. Darke, P. R., & Freedman, J. L. (1997). Lucky events and beliefs in luck: Paradoxical effects on confidence and risk-taking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 378-388.
  13. Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 41(3), 586.

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