Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

Rate this book
In this witty and perceptive debut, a former editor at Psychology Today shows us how magical thinking makes life worth living. Psychologists have documented a litany of cognitive biases- misperceptions of the world-and explained their positive functions. Now, Matthew Hutson shows us that even the most hardcore skeptic indulges in magical thinking all the time-and it's crucial to our survival.

Drawing on evolution, cognitive science, and neuroscience, Hutson shows us that magical thinking has been so useful to us that it's hardwired into our brains. It encourages us to think that we actually have free will. It helps make us believe that we have an underlying purpose in the world. It can even protect us from the paralyzing awareness of our own mortality. In other words, magical thinking is a completely irrational way of making our lives make rational sense.

With wonderfully entertaining stories, personal reflections, and sharp observations, Hutson reveals our deepest fears and longings. He also assures us that it is no accident his surname contains so many of the same letters as this imprint.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published April 12, 2012

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Matthew Hutson

4 books12 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
144 (20%)
4 stars
234 (33%)
3 stars
232 (32%)
2 stars
77 (10%)
1 star
20 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 93 reviews
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,372 reviews1,421 followers
January 28, 2020
Matthew Hutson examines some of humankind's irrational beliefs and shows, through stories and examples, how the beliefs are types of coping mechanisms and can be consciously utilized for a better life.

"These habits of the mind guide us through the world every day. In very basic ways they provide a sense of control, of purpose, of connection, and of meaning, and without them we couldn't function." pg 9

The beliefs Hutson discusses are "objects carry essences", "symbols have power", "actions have distant consequences", "the mind knows no bounds", "the soul lives on", "the world is alive" and "everything happens for a reason".

I couldn't possibly touch on every idea that engaged me in this book, but I do want to mention my favorite chapter. I was particularly drawn to "the mind knows no bounds".

"If anything is magic, consciousness is." pg 108

Everything Hutson discusses in this book originates in the mind: how we perceive events, people, death, the whole enchilada. I think it is in the interpretation of life and the meanings we assign to things that seem to be the key to magical thinking.

"Believing that our thoughts have the power to drive our own behavior as well as the behavior of the outside world - that they're not just feeble shadows cast against the inside of our heads - provides a sense of agency and makes us go out there and become active participants in life." pg 123

That's the sort of magical thinking I support - the interconnecting, empowering and mystical kind, that inserts meaning into the most trivial moments and illuminates your life, revealing a pattern of something greater. Then, spring boarding that knowledge into action, having another realization, and so on.

"While mystical states may not unite you with a universal intelligence, they can still tap you into your own potential for transformation. Which makes them mind-expanding after all." pg 123

Though his writing can become dense at times, Hutson lightens things up with stories from his own life or his research. It feels like a non-fiction psychology book with a heaping dose of philosophy, religion, and memoir.

"The idea is to face morality as frankly as you can without freaking out. To accept a manageable share of anxiety and to channel it toward building a heaven here on Earth." pg 162

Good luck with that, fellow readers. I'll be cheering for you, which, if you read this book and understand the power of magical thinking, may have more impact than you ever imagined.
Profile Image for Kerry Cunningham.
17 reviews5 followers
October 23, 2012
I am going to pick on Mormonism for just a moment, because we have a Mormon running for President for the first time. However, I think Mormonism is unexceptional in the pantheon of religions, save for its relative youth.

To be a Mormon requires that one believe all of the things a typical Christian believes, such as that Moses parted the Red Sea so the Hebrews could pass (then closed her back up over the top of the Romans), that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, rose from the dead, and (as Bill Bryson would say) a good deal else. If you're a Mormon, you add a litany of other magic to the pot. For instance, as a Mormon, you have to believe that Native Americans are descendants of the lost tribe of Israel, your magic underwear stops bullets, and that Joseph Smith actually translated golden plates by staring at stones in a hat. Now, in my opinion, believing the Mormon-only set of magical ideas doesn't add very much to the absurdity score. You're already at the end of the scale and adding another point or two doesn't make much of a difference.

So, I think we'd be better off immediately if we all took a more rational view of the world, and so does Matthew Hutson. His objective in The 7 Laws is to lay out the primary ways in which we humans typically engage in magical thinking, present the research about where such thinking comes from, what function it likely served, and then encourage us to recognize and move beyond this irrationality. I think he does the job wonderfully. Magical thinking and irrationality in general is one of my favorite subjects, and I have read deeply on the subject, including much of the original research in the areas Hutson covers, so I was prepared to be a bit disappointed. I was not. In fact, I found myself quite taken by the breadth of his scholarship and the seeming ease with which he shoehorned so much of it into easily digestible chapters.

So, the 7 laws are:
1) Objects carry essences
2) Symbols have power
3) Actions have distant consequences
4) The Mind knows no bounds
5) The Soul lives on
6) The World is alive
7) Everything happens for a reason

I'll provide just a quick explanation and example for each.

Objects carry essences. This is one of my favorites. Lots of research shows that humans are essentialists. We think that there is something fundamentally different and special about a baseball that David Ortiz once hit out of a baseball park and we are willing to pay more for it. Of course, there is nothing special about it except that it has a history, but that history matters a great deal to all of us. See here for a brief blog post on how this informs our shopping decisions. Essentialism is important to understand, however, not because it informs how we value objects, but because it informs how we value people. When we hold prejudices, those prejudices are instances of essences. We think, for instance, that because someone is a member of a particular group, that person carries the essence of that group in their soul (we will get to the issue of souls momentarily). Because we believe that people and things have unchanging essences, we tend to believe that being a member of a group is permanent. We also tend to think that essences can be contagious. Once Barack Obama caught some black from his father, no amount of having a caucasian mother or being raised in a caucasian world could make him white. Barack Obama is black. What Hutson doesn’t get to, perhaps because I may be the only one who’s thought of this yet, is that falling in love requires essentialist thinking. When we fall in love, we imbue the object of our affection with a great variety of special qualities. When we fall in love, we come to believe that there is something special about this particular person and that none other will do. Well, thank goodness for that, but it doesn’t seem to be that way for other animals and didn’t need to be that way for us. We are essentialists!

Symbols have power. We act as though objects can stand in for people, even whole countries. Voodoo dolls are the most salient example of such thinking, but lest we think that such goofiness is the domain of primitive people, modern research on American college students demonstrates that we have a very difficult time throwing darts at the faces of people we like but not at someone we don’t like. People aimed badly when asked to hit JFK or some other nice person in the face, but were pretty good at nailing Hitler. Try burning a picture of your beloved. It feels bad and wrong and maybe even dangerous. My only objection to this law of magical thinking is that it is really a special case of essentialism. We think that these objects carry the essence of the person or thing we care about, and it is for that reason that people go crazy when a Koran or flag is burned. Another aspect of this law is the law of similarity, which suggests that we analogize forces the world, and the great example Hutson adduces is that when gamblers need to roll a high number in dice, they tend to throw the dice harder. Bigger = harder, even though, of course, it doesn’t. Hutson also points out how this causes collateral damage. For many years, people didn’t believe that a mosquito could be responsible for something as awful as malaria because the mosquito is very small and malaria is very bad. We know better now.

Actions have distant consequences. I used to have an inkling of a sense that how I was sitting and where I was sitting actually had some sort of impact on whether the Red Sox would win a ball game. I am not alone of course. The world is full of rally caps, for instance. We don’t like to step on cracks, etc. We are a superstitious lot. But, we are not alone. Virtually all animals are subject to some sort of superstitious behavior. We are wired to look for causality in the world. In the classic experiments with pigeons pecking at levers to release pellets of food, if the food is released in an absolutely random fashion, completely unrelated to when the pigeon pecks the lever, the pigeon does not give up. The pigeon does not simply sit back and wait. The pigeons concoct elaborate rituals that they believe (anthropomorphizing a bit here) are causing the food to be released.

The mind knows no bounds. This law simply takes actions at a distance and moves the action inside our heads. Where action at a distance requires a rain dance, boundless minds require only prayer. Pray and it shall be given unto you. Well, who wouldn’t want the world to work that way? Here’s my favorite instance, and I bet you’ve thought this at some point. I had a friend who one day told me, Oh, the craziest thing happened this morning. I had been thinking about my dear friend Soandso and then suddenly she called. This happens to me all the time. I just have a special connection with people. So, I asked, This is a close friend? A very dear friend, my friend said. So, you think of her all the time? Of course! So, when was the last time you talked with her? Oh, six months or so. How many times do you think you might have thought about her but she didn’t call… Well thanks for pissing in my corn flakes!!!

The soul lives on. This is the problem of dualism, and Paul Bloom (the essentialism guy) has another book on this subject, called Descartes Baby. Dualism is the belief that people are two things, body and soul. The problem is, we don’t feel like just our bodies. We feel like we are IN our bodies, not that we ARE our bodies. We can have thoughts that seem to be quite disconnected from the physical. We have dreams. We can’t imagine not existing. From a very young age, we tend to believe that personalities are permanent but physical entities are not. Young children think their dog may still be hungry even if it is dead. Much of the best poetry has to do with eternal souls. There is no evidence for any of it, of course, and dualism runs into the problem of the wiring. If body and soul are different things, how exactly does soul make flesh do its bidding? Where’s the connection? I rather prefer the Walt Whitman approach to transcendence: I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself).

The world is alive. We anthropomorphize. We attribute intentions to nearly everything. We attribute a mind to nearly everything. We call our computers stupid and even yell at absurdly innate things like doors if they get in our way at inopportune moments. Some people posit that the universe as a whole has intentions (ie, The universe is against me.). To believe and act as if the world is full of entities that have intentions toward us is called the “intentional stance” in philosophy, and it has served us well from an evolutionary perspective. Here’s why: If we sense a rustling in the leaves at our feet and assume it is a snake and so jump out of the way, we are not likely to be bitten. If it’s not a snake after all, well, so what? We have not lost much. But if we were to NOT assume it was a snake when it actually was a snake, then we may very well get bitten by said snake, in which case we might die. So, in the course of evolution, the tendency to assume that the world was alive with things that we could eat or that might eat us would have been highly beneficial.

Everything happens for a reason. This last is one of my favorites. This very phrase is a slogan of the positive thinking types in the world. Again, it’s an adaptive response. It’s demonstrably not true. And when I see it written in response to someone’s misfortune on a facebook update, I think, Awww… But I also think, you can’t be thinking very clearly. I mean, we read all the time about the horrible things that are happening to perfectly innocent people all over the world. Try convincing a mother whose children have been kidnapped by the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army that everything happens for a reason. If you do, I hope that 1) she believes you, and 2) that you are not within reach, because surely she will have a go at ripping your insensitive head off, and rightly so.

So, that’s the list. Hutson is thorough in his exposition of these 7 laws. If you are unconvinced by what I have written, not to worry. Hutson lays out the research in detail. I am not a good one to say how convincing he is, because I was already onboard, but he writes concisely and with humor. If you are not already familiar with the concepts above, you will be by the time you finish The 7 Laws. You will look at the world a little differently -- that is to say, a little more clearly. If you are not familiar with the research Hutson uses to support his arguments, you may very well come away from The 7 Laws with a deep appreciation for the cleverness of the research being done, as well. There are smart people out there asking very interesting questions and devising ingenious methods for getting at the answers. Hutson does a superb job of pulling it all together.
Profile Image for Kali.
32 reviews7 followers
August 6, 2012
Lightweight pop science by a not-particularly acute journalist. One interesting section, though, was on the importance of the illusion of control in determining people's feelings about a situation. Subject groups who believed they had more control over a situation than they actually did were always more satisfied with the outcome than people who didn't have the illusion of control. Often they performed worse than their more realistic peers, but they felt better about themselves and their performance.

But the drive to create a large category of "magical thinking" leads Hutson to include things in the category that could also be a product of some other sort of thinking. For example, Hutson relegates all sentimentality about objects to the same category: he claims people attribute power to the object. But he never considers the power of objects to stimulate memory or imagination -- those don't involve magical thinking about the object, or a belief that the object itself confers power. Instead, memory and imagination are triggered by the object-as-sign -- it's a mnemonic device.
Profile Image for Deb.
349 reviews79 followers
March 16, 2013
**Magical reading**

If you think about it, the existential realities of life are pretty harsh: life has no inherent meaning, purpose, or order...and the only certainty we can count on is death. It’s not hard to see how we need some kind of psychological buffer to soften the existential blows.

Enter magical thinking.

In the words of author Matthew Hutson:
“Magical thinking provides a sense of control. The value of an illusory sense of control is that it reduces anxiety and increases a feeling of agency, which can spur you to seize real control. Second, magical thinking provides meaning. There’s meaning as in comprehension—understanding how things happen or how to do things—which allows for control. But there’s also meaning as in a sense of purpose—grasping why things happen or why anything is worth doing. This is the stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning and lets you sleep at night... These habits of mind guide us through the world every day. In very basic ways they provide a sense of control, of purpose, of connection, and of meaning, and without them we couldn’t function.” (pp. 239, 9)

In other words, a spoonful (/neocortex-ful) of magical thinking helps the existential realities go down. And, as Matthew convincingly conveys, we all think magically—whether we believe it or not. He’s divided the cerebral magic into seven (lucky number!) different forms: (1) imbuing essences into objects (your kid’s blanky, your wedding ring, an autographed book); (2) psychologically connecting symbols to their real-life counterparts (imagine the difference between throwing darts at a picture of your mother vs. a picture of Hitler); (3) engaging in superstitious rituals and harnessing luck through physical acts (avoiding walking under ladders, knocking on wood, wearing your lucky shirt); (4) believing we can control matter with our minds (prayer, transcendent thinking, sending lucky vibes through your TV as you boisterously cheer on your favorite team during the playoffs); (5) denying our finiteness (try imagining the absolute abyss of your own death); (6) treating inanimate objects as conscious intentional ones (who hasn’t yelled at their rebelliously slow computer or sworn at a traffic light that spitefully turned red?); (7) assigning meaning to random coincidences and natural events (everything happens for a reason, right?). So, even if you don’t believe *in* magic, you do think *with* it.

Speaking of magic—I experienced this book as being quite magical. From page one, I was under its spell. I found the content so fascinating, the writing so skillful, and the humor so right-up-my-alley (I may have even laughed out loud more than a few times while reading this book). And, the magic of this book continued long after I finished the book: its contents have had some serious staying power and have helped me refine the way I make peace with those existential realities.

In the introduction of the book, Matthew shares his intent for writing this book:
“I’m dissecting the sacred because the same magical thinking that leads to sentimentality, altruism, and self-efficacy can also lead to vilification, fatalism, irrational exuberance, or even depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psychosis. By tearing down everything holy and pointing out the sand it was built on, I’m hoping we can learn how to build meaning back up in constructive ways. I don’t want to eradicate magical thinking. I want to harness it.” (p. 4)

In my opinion, he accomplished his mission. Magically so, even.

Profile Image for John Martindale.
743 reviews78 followers
August 24, 2013
First of, I don't get the title, for it kind of sounds self-helpish (something the book is not) and I never recall him saying anything about 7 laws, well, other than when he was talking about lucky numbers and said why he chose 7 instead of 6 or 8.

I did enjoy the book for the most part, even though Hutson is an atheist, and thus anything that doesn't fit within his hard-line materialistic worldview is "magical thinking". Unlike those militant atheist Dawkins, Hitchen and Harris, Hutson (like William James) feels many of the delusions are benign and since some of them make us happy, healthy and sane, they aren't all that bad. The problem of course is to experience the magic, it helps if one truly believes the illusions, and yet what is funny is the main point of the book is to show people's belief in God, prayer and many other things are delusional and then in the next breath point out these beliefs make you feel happy, healthy and sane. But wait, Mr. Hutson you're trying to break the spell, only to say a moment later "can you feel the magic tonight?" "Well, no no sir, we can't feel it now, you just broke the spell! thank you Mr Hutson... now, like you we'll have to face the fact that the universe is meaningless and were here because of a cosmic accident and well soon we will no longer exist" :)

I personally think Huston's devotion to materialism though is rather a nice example of magical thinking. He believes nothing produced everything, that non-life produced life, that randomness produced fine tuning, that chaos produced information, that non-consciousness produced consciousness (of course consciousness is only an illusion), that non-reason produced reason, and that his brain that didn't evolve for the purpose of arriving at ultimate truth claims, managed to to confidently do so! But I suppose with his aversion to God, this magical thinking helps keep him happy, healthy and sane, and yet, he has been pretty depressed most of his life... so... maybe not.

I did like how Hutson pointed out an example of when Richard Dawkins succumbed to a superstition, this made me smile. I have noticed that though I am a Christian and thus according to atheist, I must hold a long list of superstitions, yet still am non-superstitious with things like good-luck charms, jinks', the stars, lucky numbers and the long list of other things mentioned in this book. I do joke about Murphy's law though and I like to pretend I believe in it.

Now what pissed me off was when Hutson decided to share the studies that "prove" freewill is an illusion. He mentions how Researchers take subjects and tell them to lift a finger at a certain signal. Then the scientist can show that the finger rises a microsecond before the subject was consciously aware of the signal. Showing there is no such thing as free will. The subjects only thought they consciously raised their finger, when in fact their brain did it before they were conscious of it.

Now, I've heard this study again and again by science writers, and it just upsets me, for they don't think critically about it at all. They act as if this one replicated study conclusively shows free-will is mere superstition. But yeah, think about the study for a moment. For one, we have people who agreed to follow the experimenter's instructions and they freely willed beforehand to lift the finger at the cue. Then the brain did the work for them even before they were conscious of the signal. But it would be different if a subject was in a bad mood and decided beforehand to be a jerk and not lift the finger, or decided beforehand to mix it up, sometimes lifting the finger and sometimes not. Its not like the signal magically MADE the finger rise up, or the researchers priming the subject beforehand, magically MADE him do it. It was the consent of the subject to obey the instructions that than resulted in unconscious action!

Gee... Scientific determinism MAKES me angry, maybe that's it's proof, it pushes the buttons in my brain and AARRRRGGGGGG, I get all riled up. I supposed I was pre-determined to hate determinism and think those who subscribe to it are utterly deluded and put way to much faith in a couple of scientific studies, especially this early in the game.

I swear, when their materialism conflicts with the reality of mind, consciousness and free-will, instead of questioning their presuppositions, they decide to declare these realities to be illusions, so they can maintain that their delusional materialism is ultimate Truth. Plaa
Profile Image for Nick Davies.
1,507 reviews40 followers
October 25, 2017
This was different to what I expected, and probably better as a consequence. I assumed this would be a bit more self-help, a bit more popular science, when what it essentially was lay more in the region of psychology and sociology... and a well-researched and grounded effort in that area.

Hutson discusses a number of aspects of human nature which rely on 'magical thought', defining this as a tendency to put weight in what are essentially strictly illogical beliefs. This includes paranormal beliefs such as ESP, theological beliefs with relation to those which give meaning to events, superstitions and thoughts of fate, as well as many more smaller and ordinary behaviours such as anthropomorphism/animism and cognitive biases. As a 'rational' scientist and atheist myself, I expected to get less from discussions of these 'woolly' subjects, but I found this in the main very interesting - mainly because everyone (no matter how logical they see themselves to be) falls foul to some degree of the behaviours and thought patterns discussed.

My only real criticism relates to the fact the book consisted of a lot of examples - both anecdotal and in the context of findings from psychological research - of each of the seven areas, but relatively little solid explanation of "Why?". Essentially every chapter concludes with "We have this irrational belief because it makes more sense to seek patterns to make sense of life, even where patterns don't exist, and it would stress us out to realise that existentially everything is meaningless".
Profile Image for Paul.
2,116 reviews
March 13, 2015
In this world of science, evolution and cold hard facts, people still cling to rituals, and habits and the belief in luck.

In this book Hutson looks at seven different ways in which people still do this in everyday life. From the wearing of lucky socks to football games as your team seems to do better when you're wearing them, to the habit of touching wood for luck and the way that people still believe in destiny and fate, Hutson covers them all. But by using science and he shows just how what seems to be a coincidence isn't.

Generally it was worth a read, and he has some interesting examples and theories to outline his hypothesis, but it really doesn't conclude with any revelations or recommendations. Well written though and an easy read.

1 review1 follower
June 20, 2012
Favorite quote:
"Far from a sign of stupidity or weakness, magical thinking exemplifies many of the habits of mind that made humans so evolutionarily successful. Once you’ve accepted that the brain constructs reality, and that the brain has evolved like any other organ to help its owner survive and reproduce, it follows that the brain constructs reality in the most useful way possible for its owner. The key word here is useful, which is not to say accurate. The brain doesn’t care so much what’s really out there; it just needs to stay alive and be replicated, which might involve telling us a white lie now and again."
143 reviews8 followers
December 21, 2018
Imagine a world in which there is no soul, no God, no higher purpose, no divine spirit. Whatever happens - from the creation and destruction of stars to evolution of life - is nothing but atoms coming together and separating in accordance with laws of physics. I world in which randomness rules, apart from the regularity of scientific laws. Will such a world be worth living?

Actually we don't need to imagine this. We live in a world like this - so the scientists say. But living without a sense of purpose or meaning is hard. Human beings need a sense of purpose because unlike other animals they know they are going to die one day, and they desperately hold on to the hope of surviving beyond their death in another world; or through their children, or their work:

"Unlike every other animal on the planet, humans recognize their own mortality; we’re aware that our Earth-bound lives are temporary blips in the grand scheme of the universe – that everything we ever work for will eventually be taken from us, and we will rot away, returning to the void from which we emerged. So the question is: granted the ability to diagnose our certain annihilation, how the hell do we hold our shit together enough to care about things like matching placemats or recording Celebrity Big Brother?"

The author says that we create world peopled with gods and spirits, believe - a la 'The Secret' - that wanting something and visualizing it will make it happen. We have beliefs and superstition with little grounding in fact. We do all this to face the hard reality of life that would end in death. He quotes Beckers 'Denial of Death' to reinforce his argument and talks extensively of 'Terror Management Theory' inspired by Becker's work:

"With our worldview confirmed – with infinity’s formula defined, the rules for redemption spelled out, the hall of fame’s frame erected – we can vie for our spot in that hallowed hall, our place in history. The reward for living up to an established system of values is immortality. Or so we believe. The real (and immediate) reward is the feeling of self-esteem, the impression that you’re doing things right and deserve respect. So self-esteem and a sense of symbolic immortality are really two sides of the same coin, according to TMT."

The book is eminently readable and makes sense. While talking of serious matters like death and meaning of life the author doesn't lose his sense of humour. Some parts of the book - particularly those dealing with 'shit' - are hilarious. The following quote is more serious, read the book for the hilarious part:

"Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams. But even more immediately, it represents man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation: to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring all this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine in noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out – the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill: to do all this, and to combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture."

Profile Image for Katie.
23 reviews2 followers
December 28, 2016
Already having a background in psychology and symbolic anthropology, I found the book to be a decent reminder of certain principles of cognition and human behavior; however, it left me disappointed that he didn't delve deeper into the topics from a symbolic anthropology perspective, he just glossed over them. I also didn't care for his personal opinions and felt his stories of drug use and depression lessened his credibility despite my trying not to let it affect my opinion. I think he meant these experiences to be support for his argument. It also felt like the author was struggling to define himself throughout the process of writing the book, and at the end was still conflicted instead of accepting that one can choose a balance in life or even just presenting facts or an argument and leaving his own feelings out of it. I did feel like it was a good read, though, and being reminded of the principles helped me get myself back to a place of being engaged in my present and creating my future.
Profile Image for Derek Neighbors.
236 reviews26 followers
March 23, 2014
I wasn't sure what to expect with this one, I predicted it would be a self-help like book that would have me frustrated for selecting it. The title inclusion of irrational beliefs had me intrigued. I am glad that I gave it a try. This is a book about the science of "magical thinking". You know things of religion, superstition, ritual and taboo. Why is a bat that Babe Ruth held to hit a home run, worth so much more than an identical bat made in the same period owned by an unknown 12 year old? Huston uses cognitive science to show that magical thinking is hardwired into our brains. In fact, it part of our evolutionary success. Skeptics who are actually open to science may find interest in this book. Huston also has a wicked sense of humor making for an easy read.
Profile Image for Masatoshi Nishimura.
315 reviews13 followers
January 2, 2021
The author mistitled the book and it attracted the wrong type of audience. Sounding pop psychology, I had very little expectation too. I was ready to move on after 7 shallow points to boost my productivity.

As it turned out, the book was more of spiritual journey Hutson went through as someone who's lived through religious childhood and secular materialism. He wanted to find a middleground that ties inbetween, and wanted to claim there's something we can learn from "sacredness" in the world that only knows how to ridicule nonmaterial value. That's the tendency observed by a million-seller book Sapiens by Yuval who tells us to wake up from irrationality like nationalism. This book made a good counterargument. I ended up having a lot of takeaways.

News is filled with finding scapegoats. If China disappears, America will be great again. If Trump goes away, racism will disappear. If corporations go away, the environment will be protected. Finding and reducing problems to a single source of blame (whose concept was introduced in Factfulness by Hans Rosling as well) let us feel we live in an ordered world. It lets us control and reduce our own anxiety. The author claims that tendency is the same as believing in external higher being, God.

Mathew then introduces us to various philospohical applications. Fatalism happens when you believe in externality too much. That stops you from seeing you as an agency that can bring change. Lack of will, you will have an unheathy lifestyle, lack precaution. The words to look out fore are genetic determinism, gods will. The part I liked about his writing is he tries hard to bring God and religion to our everyday language.

An extreme opposite to fatalism is existentialism. Everything you do matters. That is inherently meaningful. But it's also regretful because in that thinking every reason of your suffering is you. The author suggests you'd need wisdom that tells what you can and you cant change. And this magical thinking (sacredness) let us have meaning in our lives.

Sacredness can come from the presidency, air room, freedom of speech, a stadium of your favorite sports team, Mona Lisa, anniversary, honesty, human body, Oprah Winfrey, American flag, children, animals, George Washington, doctors, work of art, mother, and nature, human life, etc.

I truly appreciate him given a concrete list of what can constitute sacred. I truly appreciate him given a concrete list of what can constitute sacred. They are all easy to have and relatable to someone. It made me self-reflect what sort of things mean sacred to me.

The big problem in our world is what appears sacred to me appears utterly stupid and irrational to others. In the world where everyone wants to prove their smartness and so many of us take politics as the highest moral ground, it's so tempting to ridicule other people's sacred values. That's why respecting each other must be the highest and enforced societal virtue.
Profile Image for Stephen Gallup.
Author 1 book58 followers
July 21, 2018
If you own any sentimental object (wedding ring, family heirloom, souvenir, etc.)—something you'd value more than an identical duplicate—Hutson says you indulge in what's called magical thinking. That term is often used by pundits debunking the claims of political rivals, but this book is probably the clearest discussion of what it really means. Far from dismissing or belittling this tendency as something akin to superstition, he says "we depend on it for our very survival." We want to believe there is more to life than meets the eye, and furthermore that belief is useful to us. This is not to say it's accurate or even rational, only that it helps us feel that the world makes sense. We derive comfort from that perception.

(I'm reminded of fiction like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and other titles mentioned in my commentary on that book, which makes me very uncomfortable because it denies assumptions that I seem to rely upon. Also, I recall certain philosophers and counselors who've said discomfort is a necessary step toward awareness. Presumably they would disagree with Hutson's benign view of magical thinking.)

At any rate, that is the intro to this book. The focus is on "shadow beliefs"—not explicit religious/cultural beliefs but rather assumptions we tend to hold almost unconsciously.

I attach significance to a monogrammed ceramic shaving mug that belonged to an ancestor who died in 1906. Objectively, it's just a mug, but somehow in my mind it's a link to that bygone time. I display it in my home because of Hutson's first law: Objects Carry Essences.

Once, during a New Year's Eve church service I attended, congregants were invited to think of something we wanted gone from our lives, to write the name of that thing on a slip of paper, and then to come forward and burn the paper. In doing so, we were acknowledging his second law: Symbols Have Power.

Faced with a situation over which we have little or no control, we look for some seemingly unrelated event that might somehow produce a desired outcome. This accounts for various superstitious behaviors including the reluctance to tempt fate by calling attention to good luck. If things have been going my way lately, saying anything about that would make me nervous, because Actions Have Distant Consequences.

More than a few times in my life I've been on the receiving end of advice that I could bring a desired result into actuality simply by envisioning it, affirming it, calling it forth. Most recently I encountered this in a self-help book by Scott Adams. Per his advice (figuring it could do no harm), I dutifully began assuring myself "I am going to retire rich." (I'm currently almost 68, still working, and far from rich.) It cannot hurt to be encouraged and optimistic, right? No, but the idea that expectation will produce anything concrete, in and of itself, is in line with the next law, The Mind Knows No Bounds, aka "consciousness controls reality." (I promise to update this commentary if I do retire rich.)

Then there's the big one! When misfortune strikes, people want to believe there's "a higher meaning that will put it into context and maybe even excuse it." This need is behind Hutson's next law, Everything Happens for a Reason. If the universe, or God, cares about human affairs, then there must be a justification for misfortune, even if we don't see it. So, for example, when my first-born son began life with profound developmental issues that could not be overcome, and when his unhappy mother subsequently died, what greater good came of that? I've told myself my next marriage, which was part of a chain of events initiated by my son's disability, and the two healthy kids resulting from that marriage, could be a kind of justification—not that it did anything for my first son or his mom. And now that first son too has died. If there is any rationale for all this, I will not see it in this life. Believing in it anyway would be magical thinking. (By chance, I was reading this chapter on the day my son died.)

On the subject of chains of events, Hutson says our pattern-finding minds like to connect unrelated events to create a narrative. "This happened so that that could happen. The second event makes the first event seem purposeful." We find this attractive because it makes our lives seem less haphazard. Also, when we look back at a sequence that does indeed seem unlikely, we're that much more inclined to attribute it to the guiding influence of a higher power.

I've read other books about the human impulse to find patterns (e.g., The Signal and the Noise ). I understand what's being said, but doggone it I'm a story teller. I wrote a memoir that explains a sequence of events. So I'm not ready to embrace the notion that such a narrative might be totally arbitrary. Still, drawing on the work of various researchers, Hutson says a life story is what underpins our psychological defense against the fear of death. We all know we're going to die, but a story gives us a place in history and arguably a claim to immortality. Thus we come to the sixth law, The Soul Lives On. (Again, he's side-stepping overt religious beliefs. This is in reference to illusions of secular immortality.)

Finally, "relentless egocentrism" prompts us to anthropomorphize, i.e., to project human traits and points of view onto nonhuman subjects. It's good for society when we recognize that other people have thoughts and emotions. That's how we understand one another's behavior. Also, awareness of our own mental states allows for self-reflection and executive control. Things become sketchy when we do the same for pets and other animals, inanimate objects (say, yelling at a computer when it malfunctions), God, or Mother Earth (The World Is Alive).

This book makes a pretty good case for materialism, i.e., the philosophy that regards physical matter and motion as constituting the whole of the universe, other phenomena, including those of the mind, being consequences thereof. I read it at a point in life when I'm particularly disposed to believe this may be accurate. But if this is Hutson's view, he nevertheless seems to be comfortable with our pretending otherwise and willingly accepting these "laws." I guess doing so will indeed keep us happier—as long as our assumptions aren't tested too rigorously. Also, I'd rather not imagine living in a society that had rejected such thinking.
Profile Image for Isil Arican.
210 reviews173 followers
May 30, 2018
Nice, comprehensive book on magical thinking and related cognitive issues.
The author does a good job of explaining magical thinking with many pop culture and daily life examples as well as some referenced studies. However, it is a pretty light book, worth reading for examples but it doesn't go deep and does not provide some answers or more hardcore explanations.
The flow is bit chaotic, it doesn't stick to a good flow and author supports his claims with lots of personal stories, which is good in a way (allows the reader to engage more) or bad (too many anecdotes) depending on how you look at it.

Overall fun to read, entertaining but a light read, the examples are great though. Mostly recommended for those who are new to the subject.

Profile Image for Tyler.
49 reviews24 followers
April 12, 2019
There is science and fact, and there is belief and superstition. As humans we take part in all of them, and, not uncommonly, the places in between them as well. That, is what this book dives into. With an easy-going, conversational writing style, Hutson guides us through the silly things man has been recorded doing and still does today. There are things we participate in, often without even giving thought as to why we do them, and yet we do. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking provides an insightful look at the common habits of the present as well as past occurrences recorded in history. The book touches on the subjects of life, death, habits, traditions, history, patterns, jinxes, skepticism, psychology, and many more. It takes a light look at self-deceptions and the ways we fool ourselves, as well as the things we consciously admit we subscribe to. The author shares stories, both that he's researched and from his own life to help explain the topics he has written about. I picked this book on a whim after stumbling across it. I am glad I did. From time to time, Matthew Hutson leans into the philosophical side of these tendencies we have, always with a witty narrative that kept it both light and easy to follow as well as thought provoking. This is my first review on GoodReads and I'm glad it was for this book. Great read.
Profile Image for Bart Jr..
Author 15 books32 followers
January 7, 2015
The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking by Matthew Hutson

The main claim of this book is that magical thinking is much more common or prevalent than we normally realize. And that it is at times beneficial. Magical thinking is defined as the mingling of mental and physical concepts, attributing physical causes to mental acts, and mentality to physical ones.

To prove his point, the author divides the ways we think magically into 7 common types or laws.
You may disagree with some of these or perhaps know of some other general category that he hasn't considered. Mr. Hutson even allows for that, stating that these categories are not set in stone. There might have been six. Or eight. The general point remains that we do think magically in many different ways, about many different things. His divisions include imbuing objects with invisible essences, distant cause and effect, the afterlife, confusing symbolic associations with physical causal relationships, our belief that the world is alive, and the belief in destiny or fate.

Now, some of these categories can be contentious. In my earlier years I remember debating the concept "life." At one time in the history of the universe there was a time when nothing was what we would call "alive." Then, at some future moment in time, there was. My point being there had to be some potential for life even in objects we do not normally consider "alive." That the division we make is not as clear cut as it might seem. And, in that way perhaps the world can be considered alive. Which was mainly how it had been seen by humans, from the time it was possible for members of our species to have that thought until the modern turn. And the singularity that blossomed some 13.7 billion years ago is where everything in the known universe originated. So, in that manner we are all joined, also. And these associations I would not consider magical. A belief in the afterlife is a fundamental part of many of the world's great religions, and I am sure many people would not consider them magical thinking. These areas of contention doubtless do account for some of the mixed reviews this book has received.

I agree that we do commonly think magically in nearly all the ways the author mentions. However, I am not so sure that is the most surprising part of what is going on in modern times. You see, all these magical modes of thought have been common throughout most of mans' history. Superstition, demons and angels, ESP and voodoo? In fact, they were the norm. It was only with the development and growth of literacy, aided especially by the invention of the printing press, the analytical, logical modes of thought we take for granted in modern times came to the fore. Prior to that, magical thinking was a tremendous part of everyday life. It is striking that we have come so far that having these magical modes pointed out shocks us! My feeling is that we moderns cannot truly totally imagine how it was to live in that prior world of almost completely magical thought. We only think that we can.

Mr. Hutson does us all a terrific service in drawing attention to the magical thinking that still prevails, and surprised me a number of times with his examples. Due to his work, we can all become more aware of the nature of, inconsistencies and fallacies in, our everyday modes of thought. Perhaps, as he states, they give us a necessary sense of control, of purpose and connection and meaning. Awareness of these modes will certainly allow us to better decide if that is true. But I do believe the true magic in our thinking is in the way we have used our symbolic worlds to become who and what we are in the modern day, and in the potential of our species for future change and growth.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
557 reviews1,912 followers
May 5, 2014
Really good but flawed book. It deserves a longer review. But I don't have the time and so I will get to right to it. The book is eye opening, thought provoking and even transformative in so far as it heightens the readers awareness of how (almost) everyone engages in magical thinking (almost) all the time.

The really cool and unique thing about the book is the fact that it reframes magical thinking as a "feature not a flaw" by describing it's evolutionary origins and pointing to its here and now benefits e.g. thinking "it was meant to be" can increase bonding in adopted parents and children.

On the other hand.

The book fails to adequately address the obvious and (in my opinion) more likely damaging effects of attributing life's events to magical causes e.g. "It was meant to be" can and is often a means by which individuals can avoid personal responsibility when it would benefit them (and everyone else) to take it.

I'm a psychotherapist and addiction specialist. I'm down for using what ever cognitive reframe works to get my clients where they want to go. But so often, magical (distorted or unrealistic) thinking is more harmful than helpfull.

I understand why the author took the position he did. And I like what he is saying. He focuses on going with what "works" rather than rigidly adhering to materialistic, naturalistic explanations even when they are depressionagenic. I agree. But in my anecdotal experience as a clinician and as a regular guy, naturalistic and systematically realistic thinking and planning generally get the best results.

Their are lots of caveats to that particular rule. But generally speaking, magical thinking can be very harmful and the author did not explicitly make this point clear enough. Absolutely read the book. But be warned.
Profile Image for Abbey.
422 reviews28 followers
November 3, 2012
The notion that irrationality keeps us sane is so counter-intuitive that I wanted to give this book a chance to explain itself. Don't tell me that it's somehow _good_ to be superstitious! Ludicrous!

On the other hand, I'll admit that I don't want to be disabused of the feeling of wonderment and awe that I have when I look at Abe Lincoln's hat and think, "That strangely circular, not oblong but really round, stovepipe hat used to encircle one of the greatest minds of the 19th century." That wonderment is partly due to the feeling that taboo attaches to objects, that we can get close to the genius by getting close to the object that the genius used.

In the same way, the author reports that most people didn't feel comfortable wearing a cardigan once they were told that it had belonged to a notorious killer. That's totally illogical but it's hard to shake.

We're irretrievably superstitious. I really hate that, but I'm convinced that it's true. I recommend this book for people who believe that we're capable of being completely rational.
Profile Image for Jen.
800 reviews
December 29, 2018
The longer this book went on, the progressively fewer stars it got from me. It's an interesting concept and it was well researched. Therein, though, for me lay some of the problem. In every page, Hutson is giving examples of 2 or 3 studies. Some of the studies were passively relevant, many were not. A lot of the studies or experiments went back anywhere from 50 years to more and while I could see how he was drawing lines of "this is how our thinking was", it didn't do anything for me. His personal writing style grated on me rather than endeared the author to me. This probably would have been excellent as a robust, concise article. It gave me fodder to consider my own thoughts and feelings about his concept and where I fell into "magical thinking". But, as a book, it was too long, not well annotated and not well edited with a snarky, too personal feel.
Profile Image for Bob.
35 reviews2 followers
October 26, 2012
This is a great read -- fun and insightful. The author does a great job of pointing out our irrational behaviors and offering ways to overcome them. He walks a line between giving us a hard time for such behavior (though never ridiculing it) and showing us the way out (by gently nudging us in that direction). As such, it's not a hard and heavy book when it comes to a call for critical thinking.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing when you're trying to change people's ideas or behaviors.

I originally got this from the library but since have bought a copy to highlight.
Profile Image for Dave.
681 reviews
March 24, 2014
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book on several aspects of magical thinking and how pervasive they are even among self selected rationalists, skeptics and atheists. The author combines persuasive stories with research to make the point that magical thinking is common, natural and not necessarily a bad thing if people are aware of it. The final section speaks of the need for transcendence or magic to help provide meaning in a chaotic world and suggests finding for oneself that which is sacred.
Profile Image for Michael.
53 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2014
Definitely not an academic book, but that's ok. I feel sort of bad only giving it three stars because it really was entertaining. I guess it just doesn't really shed any new light on anything. I have read everything in this book somewhere else but for someone who might not have it is a really good starting point and could really help someone develop an interest in cognitive or behavioral psychology. It got a little self-helpy near the end but the rest of it was pretty solid. That's my two-cents.
Profile Image for Laila.
100 reviews
May 21, 2020
Full/ detailed review to be completed


Although this book has an interesting premise, I found it rather dry and difficult to complete. I suppose I would have found it more interesting if it had been more concise, but it felt like it was dragging. I wouldn't reread this book. Moreover, I don't think I'd recommend it,as there are likely other texts on the subject that are probably more interestingly written.
Profile Image for Kyrie.
2,992 reviews
July 16, 2012
I really enjoyed his analysis of why we believe in certain things. It wasn't a promotion of beliefs or bashing of beliefs. Hutson just looks at things and the studies done on them and explains why we need to believe in some things or we'd all be mad. I will be rereading this one. There was a lot to take in for such a relatively short book.
Profile Image for LemontreeLime.
3,179 reviews17 followers
July 9, 2012
This is fantastic! A good humored examination of all the unprovable beliefs of life. I'd love to see to Matthew Hutson and the author Mary Roach tag-team some major subject, they both examine everything with equal parts clear scientific thinking and wry commentary.
Profile Image for Jill.
356 reviews1 follower
August 13, 2012
I liked the way the author talked about our biolgical ways of being and how magical thinking helps our evolutionary existence. It was an interesting read and he doesn't try to convince anyone of belief or nonbelief.
Profile Image for Mary Overton.
Author 1 book40 followers
August 20, 2013
The 7 Laws as listed in the table of contents:
1. Objects carry essences
2. Symbols have power
3. Actions have distant consequences
4. The mind knows no bounds
5. The soul lives on
6. The world is alive
7. Everything happens for a reason
Profile Image for Ard.
123 reviews9 followers
January 9, 2016
Couldn't finish this book. Not even close to what I hoped to learn from it ad besides that, the writing style and its many lukewarm 'jokes', probably meant to liven up the account but increasingly annoying to me, made me sometimes cringe.
Profile Image for Esme.
17 reviews2 followers
November 16, 2012
if you can't sleep - this will help * yawn * not so good....
Displaying 1 - 30 of 93 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.