Magical thinking and how we persuade ourselves

Magical thinking is one of the most potent cognitive biases. Of all people in the world, it is easiest for us to lie to ourselves. This self-deception may help us remain strong in times of great danger and uncertainty, and it may also lead to our downfall in times of prosperity and stability. In this blog, we work with magical thinking using two very potent and very different tool. With the help of critical thinking, we try to dispell the lies we tell ourselves. With guided visualization, we form the personal mythology to be instrumental in pursuing our goals.For further reading today I can recommend hereherehere, here, and here.

Avoiding tough choices

Most people tend to be self-centered. This is a part of the evolutional drive to live and procreate. Any decision for greater good or delayed gratification requires complex processing in two independent brain areas: the area responsible for empathy and the area that controls impulsive behavior. The effort required by such reasoning is huge, so we try to find ways to avoid it. Self-persuasion may be easy if the lie we are telling ourselves is sufficiently compelling. In some experiments, only 40% of the participants are prepared to face the truth, while 60% prefer a pleasant lie.

Status quo effect

The most compelling idea is the idea of status quo. Things can always get worth, and if they do get better the price might be too high. The desire to keep the status quo is overwhelming. Say you have a 50/50 chance to double your money or to loose half of it. Statistically speaking if you take the chance you win 25% on average. Very few people will take the bet for a life-changing amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the bet is small, say 100 dollars, we would expect many people to take it. Experiments show that the psychological pain of loosing 100$ is twice as strong as the pleasure of winning the same amount. I quote from an article on the subject: “Even when we understand our current path is no longer beneficial or no longer makes us happy, we must still overcome the natural urge to stay on the path unless the alternative is sufficiently attractive. In order for us to readily pursue an alternate path, we must believe that the alternative is clearly superior to the current state of affairs.”

Expecting future prosperity

Many financial failures are caused by wishful thinking. We simply expect to be able to handle in the future the issues we cannot handle right now. There are several variations of this bias:

  1. Overly optimistic future self. Since we learn and improve all the time, we may expect our future self to be better at handling certain situations, with more financial resources and experience. We expect to rise a career ladder, have successful investments and earn more. There is no way to make sure when will such an improvement happen, and when it does happen it may make us miserable. Some brave decisions require handling uncertainty, and this is the worst thing when we have looming debts. The debt does not have to be financial: it can be a lack of knowledge, moral obligation etc. Planning for the future self to deal with our current problems is a sure way to sabotage this future self.
  2. Expecting general prosperity. Just as we expect ourselves to be better, we expect better times for the people around us. If we live in times of economic growth or technological progress we expect this trend to accelerate. In real life, it is quite hard to anticipate how the prosperity would be distributed: which technologies will proliferate, which countries get rich, and where the net crisis will strike. Even though our future may be bright, it is important to have some plans and saving for the rainy day.
  3. “My ship will come.” There is a strong and inexplicable belief that some rare event or a savior figure will come and solve most of the problems. All kinds of rare events may indeed happen, but there is no indication that the events will happen. We may buy many lottery tickets, yet we might not get the first price. Both lotteries and insurances are built to make money by selling rare events, good or bad. On average, the clients lose money and the house wins.

Healthy dose of pessimism

One way of fighting the magical thinking is introducing an opposite mental conditioning. We should work hard to get a chance and even then the big “break” might not come. Our future self may be worse off than we are. It is good to have a strategic reserve or emergency fund in case something rare, bad or good happens. The emergency fund does not have to be simply financial: we may want to have some survival skill, know languages and have a hobby that can become an alternative profession.

Rare things happen rarely, and it is best to have more positive than negative thoughts. A ratio of between 3 and 8 positive thoughts for each negative thought is typically considered healthy.

Cultural influences

More often than not we are not responsible for our own biases. Many biases are evolutionary and allowed our predecessors to survive. Other biases are cultural. We tend to be surrounded by people of similar social status, beliefs, and stereotypes, talking the same language and visiting the same institutions. We can be very smart and literate and can laugh at how our friends view the world. Yet these views are highly contagious, and our first impulse is not the most intelligent behavior in our disposal.

Manipulative rhetorics

Many people try to manipulate us, sometimes for our own good. Salesmen try to sell us products, preachers sell us ideology, charmers try to sell us themselves. Some arguments are very intelligent and logical. Some appeal to our feelings. Some have a deeper almost hypnotic effect. When people try to anticipate our thoughts and fears, limit our choice, call for immediate action, inspire us to do something difficult, enchant us with their language skills – they may modify our ability to make educated decisions and activate the magical thinking.


The strangest form of magical thinking is self-hypnosis. People in trans can do things that are incredible for most of us. They can have more strength and endurance, they feel little pain and their wounds quickly cure. Passionate people are very convincing, even when we know that the person is delusional. Many people with extraordinary stories took huge chances in their life. People who fail do not love to talk about their failures, but people who succeed talk a lot. Their stories inspire awe and admiration and we start to believe in magic.

When I was young, my reading speed was 100 wpm. Now I read around 3000 wpm. This is very hard, and it takes a lot of skill, knowledge, and training. The world record is somewhere around 5000wpm. Yet every day I hear claims of 10,000 wpm or higher from different sources. I ask myself: do these people truly believe they read so fast or are they trying to sell something simply to make money.

Checking facts

When something is easy, it might be wrong. It is easier to accept what people tell us then start checking the facts. People do make honest mistakes. Quite often they tell others the things they believe in. It is very easy for us to lie to ourselves, or to tell a white lie protecting someone we care about. Suspecting someone in manipulation or deception may be too harsh in most cases. Yet we do need to check facts, cross-reference various resources, look for controversies.

We are addicted to the “eurika!” moments. Our brains are designed to make patterns. This is why the conspiracy theories are so compelling. We see rare patterns and get immediate satisfaction. A theory that is not backed by facts should not guide us in our decisions and moral choices, yet we are dangerously susceptible.


“Everybody lies” is Dr. House’s credo. Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”.

We are probably not as intelligent and impartial as we think we are. In every understanding we have or decision we make there is an element of magical thinking. With learning and practice, we can learn to notice the magical thinking and check our reasoning.

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