Most of us adults think of ourselves as rational. We no longer believe, if we ever did, that Wile E. Coyote can walk off a cliff—and keep walking. That we never have to grow up.
But in many ways, we don’t. We are creatures of magical thinking, even as adults. Even in the supposedly über-rational halls of American universities.
Researchers at the University of Missouri recently asked college students to throw a handful of darts at an array of images, some likable (a baby’s face), others neutral. Guess which target they consistently had trouble hitting? The baby.
As the lead researcher noted, the students shared “a baseless concern that the picture of an object shares an essential relationship with the object itself.” We feel, in other words, that we’re tempting fate (or courting it) when we skewer a picture of a baby through the eyes—or stab a voodoo doll, or play with ouija boards, or pray to a statue. Even when some part of us knows it’s just an object.
The MIA is full of examples of magical thinking, of course. That’s not a religious critique. Investing objects with power may help us make our way through the world. Take the power figure shown above, made in the early 20th century in central Africa. Often mistaken for a voodoo doll, it’s actually a kind of village arbitrator. Believed to house a spirit, it was consulted when disputes arose, and every nail driven into it—activating its power—represents an issue resolved by its ritual authority. Pound in a nail, get on with life.
Some experts believe that such magical thinking is actually innate behavior, evolutionary instincts that helped us know our mothers from strangers or to stay away from dangerous heat. It would be alarming, in fact, if a baby didn’t react warmly to an image of its mother. It’s subconscious thinking, sub-rational. And it stays with us. Indeed, the world is a more magical place for it—and there’s nothing we can do about it.