Do people ever engage in “magical thinking” ?
Would you enjoy your cocktail less, if it came in a glass labelled “vomit”?
One solid result of cognitive psychology, or so it would seem, is that most people, regardless of education, opinion or personality, can be induced to think in magical terms given the appropriate stimuli and conditions. People will be reluctant to don a sweater if told that it used to belong to Adolf Hitler. They resist drinking from a glass of water in which an experimenter has briefly dunked a plastic cockroach. There is a great variety of such effects, initially demonstrated by Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff and replicated by many others, including Paul Harris in developmental studies.
This was salutary news for cultural anthropologists, who suspected that there was something deeply wrong with the notion that magical thinking was a prerogative of the Other, either quasi-naked people with bones through their noses, or less exotic peasants and barbarians with “pre-logical” mentality. So – we now know that we all are that Other, so to speak.
But does magical thinking actually exist? Do the experiments actually show it in action?
All a matter of interpretation
The empirical literature is solid. The results are not at issue here. People can be induced to make “magical” choices, the phenomenon is stable, resists rationalization, is found in most human cultures and is not confined to early development. The notion of an exotic primitive mentality is dead and gone. No problem there.
The problem lies in the cognitive computational description of the processes engaged. Consider a paradigmatic case, that of people who prefer to drink from a glass A labeled ‘H2O’ than a glass B labelled ‘vomit’. They have seen that water from the same pitcher was poured into both glasses, in some versions of the protocol they even wrote the labels themselves and stuck them on the glasses… yet they feel more comfortable drinking from one than the other. In such studies, the participants readily accept that there is no real difference between the two glasses, and that the notion of a magical connection is indeed absurd. Yet their choices are predictably swayed towards A.
Hence the apparently uncontroversial conclusion that somehow they do hold the magical belief suggested by the experimental protocol, albeit in a tenuous way.
But who is doing the believing?
It seems to me that this last inference is based on a rather vague and probably misleading view of the cognitive processes engaged, notably that: the mind includes a central belief-box where the organism’s current beliefs are stored and combined to produce new inferences;  decision-making is the outcome of stored representations in that belief-box combined with a hierarchy of the organism’s goals, presumably stored in some “current preference box” buffer.
If these are valid assumptions, then the participant’s behavior (choosing glass A) requires a decision based on a preference (glass A is better than glass B) which itself entails a belief like “there is something bad about the contents of glass B” — so we can interpret the behavior as evidence for experimentally-induced magical belief.
But that is a rather odd description of belief and decision-making. In an alternative description of cognitive architecture – one so obviously true that I need not defend it here – the premises are rather different: The mind does not include a central belief-box but a (probably rather large) number of belief-adjudicating modules, automatically activated by the similarities in contents and scope among any n-tuplet of beliefs produced by different domain-specific modules;  Decision-making is the outcome of current goal competitions, informed by competition between those belief-adjudicating systems.
Under these really straightforward assumptions, the participant’s behaviour suggests an interpretation that differs from the standard story.
First, what happens when people see a glass labelled “vomit” is that some threat-detection modules are automatically activated, as the label matches one of their input conditions – a cue indicating a substance dangerous to ingest. Other pieces of conceptual information, e.g. “The label truly represents the contents”, or on the contrary “I wrote and stuck this label on the glass myself”, “This is all a game suggested by the experimenter”, etc., do not enter in the threat-detection module’s processing because they simply do not match any of its input formats.
Second, the current state of the subject’s decision-making process can be described as follows: Most mental systems and modules have no input in the particular choice of glasses, because they are designed to focus on other matters. [ii] Some higher belief-adjudicating modules, which do process information like “I wrote and stuck this label on the glass myself”, etc., yield no preference for A or B, as they entail that both glasses are the same; [iii] one small set of modules (the threat-detection one and its daughters) is signaling a preference for avoiding glass A.
Since decisions are swayed by whatever competitive edge (however small) one plan has over alternatives, the participant proceeds to choose glass B.
Under this interpretation, neither the organism nor indeed any part of the organism can be described as holding the belief “there is poison in glass A”. This is true even of the threat-detection module, which need only convey information like “the word ‘poison’ denotes potential threats”, without any inference about the contents of the glass.
In a nutshell, an experiment like this is indeed revealing – but not of magical thinking. It shows that any change of preferences induced by some modular processes, somewhere in the mind, is sufficient to sway decision-making when all else (i.e. the preferences induced by other modules) is neutral with regard to that decision. Which is interesting, and should be studied, but does not require magical beliefs.
Now the same applies, I would suggest, to other, non-experimental cases of apparent magical beliefs. People tell you that if they paint a spider on a photograph of their neighbour, said neighbour will certainly get sick and thereby pay for his misdemeanours. It seems to me that all this can occur without any part of the mind being committed to a magical belief.
The inner voice of anthropological conscience
Now I hear the voice of classical anthropological wisdom shouting me down, with cries of “What on earth are you talking about? How can you deny the existence of magical beliefs when people (in some cases) actually tell you ‘Yes, I do believe in magic, I believe that the spider picture will make my neighbour sick’”?
The voice is loud but the argument is not compelling.
There is certainly a difference between people who choose glass A and say “but I know it really is silly” and those who choose glass A and say “I think there is actually some bad magic in glass B”. There is a difference in explicit discourse, but note that there is no difference in either their intuitions or in their behavior.
This would suggest that the explicit discourse is not what triggers the intuitions or behaviors, but is an interpretation of one’s own behaviors. That is, once we make choice that seem “magical” (as a result of the processes described above), we may have to justify them to others and ourselves. In some cultural contexts, like Rozin’s subjects, we can say “it’s silly but I can’t help it”. In other contexts, we can draw on a culturally salient model of “magic” to say “it does make sense and I like others know that it happens”. Given that there must be many occasions when our modular systems yield choices we cannot really justify, there is ample ecological space for the latter kind of discourse to become culturally stable.
The models developed by cognitive scientists to explain “magical connections” (see in particular Jesper Sørensen’s detailed analysis) are just as valid in the present scenario as before. But magical belief is not really necessary or sufficient for these models.
So the primitive Other was really like us all along. It is not that we have weird ideas too, but jut that they have well-designed adapted minds too.