ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Magical Thinking

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday April 03, 2012 - 06:59:00 PM

An example of magical thinking is a gambling addict who has the belief he or she is going to hit the lucky number, win a million dollars and live happily ever after. Meanwhile that person is gambling away the food money and the rent money. Magical thinking of the previous President created the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the assumption that it would be a much easier and simpler enterprise than it turned out to be. (The U.S. military believed we could install a government in Iraq that is favorable to us, and Iraqi citizens would blithely allow themselves to be governed by it.) Magical thinking is responsible for gross errors in human behavior. It says that wanting something means you deserve it and will get it, in the absence of performing the necessary work. Magical thinkers falsely believe that God likes them better than other people. And they believe there will always be someone there to clean up their mess. 

Magical thinking is where the mind draws a correlation between unrelated events, and does this in order to bring about a desired conclusion. It is wishful thinking that has crossed the line into superstition. 

I am bringing up magical thinking because it is one category of delusions, out of many, to which schizophrenic people are subject. It is a borderline category of delusions which many people who do not have a mental health diagnosis also experience. George W. Bush's administration was an example of the damage that can be wrought by magical thought. By the end of his administration, the U.S. economy was teetering on the brink of collapse. The military was stretched to a dangerous thinness. The government was spending more money than was being taken in through taxes-leaving a huge mess for others after him to clean up. 

Magical thinking is like a more extreme version of wishful thinking, in which there is an element of mild psychosis. It pays the salaries of astrologers and psychics. 

If a person with a history of psychosis experiences symptoms of magical thought, sometimes an increase in antipsychotic medication will bring him or her out of that. Symptoms include a person revealing plans that seem unrealistic, and as a result of those plans, failing to take care of basic necessities. 

Sometimes, people will outgrow magical thinking as they become older and more mature. I have a past history of foolish thinking, I admit. It took me years of enduring the hard knocks created by my foolishness to discover how to have accurate thought. At one point, I was having difficulty finding a home in which I wasn't being harassed, and decided to rent an apartment that, in fact, I could not afford. I believed I would get a job and would be able to pay for this. I borrowed money from a relative which isn't paid back to this day. The outcome of this apartment rental was disastrous. 

There seem to be some churches that propagate forms of magical thinking. For example, the church may promote the belief that you can gain affluence if you ascribe to their practices. Gaining affluence through some type of hocus pocus is no more than fool's gold. Affluence is created either by work, by inheritance, or by some kind of business activity-not by the magic power of the mind, and not by the offers that keep showing up in your spam folder. 

It is interesting to see that organized or collective psychosis is often accepted in society and thought of as valid. On the other hand, if a person invents their own delusions, they become categorized as being mentally ill. The litmus test is to look at whether or not a person can function and survive in society and do the day to day tasks that everyone must do. If a person can function and survive, in the U.S. at least, they are free to manufacture any belief. 

Just a reminder that my book that contains a year's worth of columns is available at and also at Amazon. It is called "jack bragen's essays on mental illness." Meanwhile, if you would like to send comments, I can be reached at: please specify whether or not I have permission to publish part, none or all of your letter. You are also encouraged to send comments about the column directly to The Planet.