The Psychology of Magical Thinking

Our tendency to overestimate our control over outcomes, known as the illusion of control bias, makes us susceptible to magical thinking. Magical thinking can be helpful in certain situations, but for the most part it hinders growth and leads to blind optimism and delusional thinking. This leaves us vulnerable to getting exploited by cults and con artists who use manipulation tactics to exploit this bias. To protect against this bias, doubt and discernment are key, allowing for critical thinking and openness to different perspectives.

Est reading time: 5 mins

If there’s one thing that makes us truly susceptible to getting ‘brainwashed’ (I use that term loosely b/c brainwashing is a myth), it’s our tendency to overestimate how much control we have over outcomes. Our sense of ‘free-will,’ if you will.

(Hint: Free-will is not the same as freedom. These are two completely different dimensions of consciousness that often get confused. I have a discussion on that coming up soon.)

The tendency to overestimate how much control we have over our lives is a human bias psychologists call the illusion of control. Everyone has this. And I mean everyone. This bias is inherent to our human experience because we literally couldn’t survive without it. You’ll see why, in a moment.

The illusion of control bias is what leads to magical/wishful thinking. For example, the belief that if we want something ‘bad’ enough it will come to us. Or if we avoid a certain thought, the bad thing won’t happen. Or if we ignore a problem, it’ll go away.

The entire Law of Attraction/manifestation doctrine is built on magical/wishful thinking. It exploits and capitalizes on our illusion of control bias.

The psychology of magical thinking

Magical thinking is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a thing that has a dark side.

Remember, our biases have a survival component to it. My reasoning is that if something has helped us survive the human race, then it can’t be all bad. Which means there are some situations where magical thinking helps us, and other situations where it trips us up.

To put it simply, the illusion of control bias protects us against the ego’s biggest fear: the great Unknown.

Magical thinking is the ego’s way of controlling for predictability and certainty over outcomes that are otherwise unpredictable and uncertain.

If you think about it, it’s not unreasonable for the ego to fear the unknown. The unknown is scary! Right now as you read this, there are black holes & dead stars in the universe with frighteningly powerful magnetic fields that could literally dissolve the earth within 600 miles distance. Can you imagine if we were to constantly think about the unpredictability of our existence 24/7? We would not be able to function, plan for the future, raise a family, etc. The existential dread would be too much for our limited minds to handle.

That’s why it’s comical to me when LOA teachers romanticize ‘the Universe.’ There’s nothing romantic about the harsh and hostile conditions that exist just outside our literal, actual worldview.

Anyway, sometimes in our life we NEED certainty and predictability.That little bit of magical thinking goes a long way when we’re going through a major life change or facing a psychological/emotional/spiritual crisis. Other times it makes us resilient in the face of illness or trauma. I believe it’s okay to honor that and create boundaries or conditions that help you navigate a tough situation. In these cases, the magical thinking is an adaptive response to stress and can help us keep going instead of giving up in frustration. This is where our illusion of control bias can help us.

Other times, the need for certainty and predictability can hold us back from fully growing and thriving, particularly when it’s met with rigidity and dogma. In these cases, our illusion of control doesn’t allow us to consider a range of possibilities because our need to control an outcome locks us into a tunnel vision. This applies to situations that require us to take calculated risks, like start a new business venture, step out of our comfort zone, or surrender to an experience we have no control over.

And then there are other times when our magical thinking trips us up and leads to bad decisions that we otherwise wouldn’t make if we were not blinded by our illusion of control bias. And that has to do with blind optimism.

When our illusion of control gets so out of hand that ‘magical thinking’ becomes delusional thinking, grandiose thinking, and completely-out-of-touch-from-reality thinking…we get very, very lost.

How magical thinking trips us up

One of the most common ways that magical thinking trips us up is when our illusion of control bias interferes with our ability for risk assessment. To put it simply, we’re so positive that things will work out for us (i.e. blind optimism) that we don’t adequately assess risk; we don’t think things through and therefore we don’t consider potential obstacles. I believe LOA teachers seriously misguide their students when they encourage so much “positive thinking” that it leads to blind optimism. Read: Why blind optimism is bad for you.

Again, I’m not talking about healthy doses of optimism in the face of adversity. I’m talking about the blind optimism that leads to reckless and impulsive decisions because it shuts down our critical thinking and reasoning capacity in favor of purely emotional decisions. This. This is what makes us most susceptible to cult indoctrination.

The dark side of magical thinking

In order to really, truly free our minds from the destructive social influence of cult dynamics, we need to be able to recognize when our illusion of control bias is being used to control, disempower, and conquer our minds.

The dark side of magical thinking is that it is linked with our feelings of exceptionalism and superiority. This is what leads us to systematically misevaluate information based on what we think is right or what we want to believe, not what is reasonable, realistic, or based on facts.

How do cults weaponize this? Through the illusion of control.

Basically, the more control we THINK we have over outcomes, the less likely we are to question what we’re being told is the truth. This is why cults are so obsessed with telling their followers that they have free will and sovereignty over their actions—that at any point, they can leave.

Not surprisingly, this is also how con artists use the power of persuasion to give us a false sense of certainty over our actions. If we think we are always in control, we’ll never realize when we should cut our losses and run. The psychological promise of certainty and predictability makes us think things are under control even when they aren’t. Our own misplaced confidence leads us astray. Cult leaders, con artists, and predatory marketers know this, and they use it against us. Fortunately, there are ways we can protect against it.


How do we protect against our own inherent illusion of control bias that leads to magical thinking?

That’s where doubt & discernment come in.

Doubt asks: could I be wrong? What am I missing?

Discernment asks: Is this true? Or is it just true for me, in this moment?

Remember, these are just open-ended questions—the point is not to arrive at a definitive answer (although you may)…but to slow down and be more intentional and mindful in the way you process & integrate information, especially when someone else sells you that information as “truth” and there’s no way to prove or disprove their claims. This is what I talked about in my last newsletter on reality-testing.

Doubt & discernment are not so that you can doubt yourself (self-doubt has to do with ego-development), but so you can open up the channels of your critical thinking capacity and invite a range of possibilities and perspectives into your worldview. This of course means making room for way less certainty and way more unpredictability into our human experience. Which, as we learned, is always scary.

This week, I invite you to reflect on how you relate to your illusion of control. Its been really helpful for me to identify which situations trigger my magical thinking, how it helps me, and how it trips me up.

Thanks for reading!

Join the momentum

Start a Conscious Revolution

Conscious Revolution is a newsletter & podcast about the intersection of cults, cons, and capitalism. How do we define ourselves outside of exploitative social systems, mainstream cults, internet echo-chambers, and authoritarian agendas? How do we navigate the collective struggle to discern reality from illusion? Conscious Revolution is a critical exploration of this and so much more! Get in, loser: We're starting a Conscious Revolution!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.