Clap your hands if you believe

This post is also available in Dutch.

Even highly educated people have their magical rituals and ungrounded beliefs. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but why are we wired this way?



Superstitions are extreme examples of cognitive biases. Picture by Roselyne

We Europeans, praise rationality and generally make decisions based on evidence, all the while critically assessing events around us. However once Christmas arrives, the media encourages us to experience the Christmas spirit and to believe in its magic. We find ourselves telling children about a magical man who brings them presents if they behave well… Is this just a tradition that we want to maintain, or is there something more behind it?

The many faces of magical beliefs
You might say, “Sure Santa, you know what?… I am too old to be on your list anymore,” but have you ever put on that lucky shirt before a football game, collected karmic points after helping someone, or even talked to your computer? Yes, these are also magical beliefs. Magical thinking results from cognitive biases. These biases are shortcuts that help us make sense of the world, making our lives easier. This is the nature of how our brain works. The thing is, our brains can trick us from time to time.

There are many cognitive biases that contribute to magical thinking. Anthropomorphism is one of them. This happens when people animate inanimate objects and treat them as if they had a consciousness. Take for example, when you threaten your phone so that it might speed up when it’s taking ages to load. Another cognitive bias is teleological reasoning. This occurs when you perceive particular events or objects as being “meant-to-be”, regardless of whether they actually serve a purpose (i.e. divorce) or not (i.e. car crash). You can’t help but think that sleeping through your alarm saved you from that terrible accident. Dualism is when you assume that the mind can live without the body. People who tend to think this way usually believe in the ‘soul’ and life after the death.

The nature of cognitive biases
Dualism, teleological reasoning and anthropomorphism are just a few examples of cognitive biases[1]. Through the process of evolution, our brains developed to anticipate events (“What’s this shadow? A tiger! Run!”) to survive. Nowadays, we are not threated by carnivorous animals, but by stress and burnouts. Therefore, when we make quick decisions with high stakes, our brain prefers to use familiar strategies. However, sometimes our brain misinterprets the cause of events and creates wrong associations: my lucky ring didn’t bring me victory in a poker game, but years of practice did. The fact that I happened to wear it, while winning a few games made me think that the ring was lucky.

Christmas is harmless (fingers crossed)
Researchers showed that dualism, teleological reasoning  and anthropomorphism explain beliefs that are religious, paranormal, and purposeful. Ironically, cultural experiences related to Christianity, were unrelated to cognitive biases. In other words, if you never believed in miracles, neither the Christmas lights or Santa would ever change that. Nevertheless, complete skeptics tend to be depressed, so have yourself a merry little… magic this holiday season!

[1] If you want to know more about it, check out this book by Matthew Hutson “The 7 laws of magical thinking”

This blog was written by Lara, edited by Roselyne & Marpessa

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