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Magical thinking and Trump phenomenon

May 29, 2017

Last week, former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to be a special counsel to oversee the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential election. The extensiveness of the assignment means that Mueller has wide-ranging authority to examine nearly all allegations that attach to the election, including the behavior of the candidates and their campaign staffs.


This action by Rosenstein, necessitated by the fact that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any matter that might constitute a “conflict of interest” or “other extraordinary circumstances” involved with the proceedings, has opened the door to all kinds of speculation about the overall “Trump phenomenon.” I believe that, underlying any other hypotheses, facts, or suppositions that may ultimately be revealed, Donald Trump is president today because of “magical thinking.”

Magical thinking


Among adults, magical thinking is a reversion to a developmental stage of childhood that Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget called “preoperational.” During this period, usually between the ages of two and seven when children are in the process of developing logical thought, they believe that their internal feelings produce observable, external occurrences.

 

For example, a child may believe that it is raining because “I am sad.” An extension of this perception is wishful thinking, like when a child comes to believe that “if I close my eyes” an undesirable condition will disappear.


Sometimes, when we determine that a situation is beyond our control, we adults revert to this kind of magical thinking. Mark Twain once wrote that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it. The reason, of course, is that there is no technology that people can use to control the weather.


For the past 60 years, scientists have attempted a process called “cloud seeding,” which was supposed to lure rain out of heavy clouds. But, the National Research Council states, “…scientifically acceptable proof for significant seeding effects has not been achieved….“  So, some people pray and others hold a “rain dance.” As I will point out, it is perfectly normal and often beneficial to have some kind of magical thinking as our default.


When I write that the Trump phenomenon is a product of magical thinking, I am asserting that Mr. Trump is president because the American public has become overwhelmed by its constant exposure to seemingly insurmountable national and international problems, and many people have resorted to thinking wishfully that a man who has amassed more money than they can imagine also possesses the ability to return the country and the world to a more stable condition.

Magic and golf


Perhaps, somewhere in the world, there is a skeptic who is absolutely immune to magical thinking. But, I doubt it. Although I’m pretty skeptical of many things that I hear, read about, or even see, I know that I’m as susceptible to the phenomenon as anyone else. And, I have proof.For most of our adult lives, my brother Bob and I suffered from an addiction known as golf, and we were equally inept at the sport. Almost everyone who has ever played the game agrees that its name derives from the fact that all of the other four-letter words were already taken. The fact that such a frustrating activity attracts a wide following smacks of a certain kind of magic, in and of itself.


Anyway, both Bob and I exhibited magical thought concerning lakes, ponds, or other water hazards on the course. When it came time to tee-up and water lay before us, Bob would unzip his golf bag and pull out a “water ball,” an old, scuffed ball that he wouldn’t ordinarily use. On the other hand, I’d play a brand new ball. Bob’s reasoning was that he wouldn’t mind losing such a ball when the water stole it; mine was that the water could only claim my ball if “it knew” that I was afraid of it. In other words, both of us attributed a power to a puddle that any reasonable person would reject.

Magic and success


But, guess what. There seems to be a reason why most of Bob’s shots wound up wet and mine remained dry. In the October 19, 2010, issue of Scientific American, Piercarlo Valdesolo reports on a psychological experiment that was carried out by Lysann Damisch based on the idea that magical thinking is “the belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome.”


In the experiment, subjects were asked to putt a golf ball into a hole from ten carefully measured distances and positions on an indoor “green.” In every case, all subjects were supplied with the exact same golf ball and putter, but half were told that the ball “has turned out to be a lucky ball” in previous trials, and half were simply told that the ball “had been used so far.”


The outcome was interesting. “Remarkably,” writes Valdesolo, “the mere suggestion that the ball was lucky significantly influenced performance, causing participants [with the lucky ball] to make almost two more putts on average.”


Magic and reality


Much magical thinking is harmless. Many people automatically utter “God bless you” when another person sneezes. This practice developed during the thirteenth century (along with astrology and the belief in witchcraft) when people thought that part of the soul was forced out of the body by the expulsion of air. The “exposed soul” could then be snatched by the devil unless God’s name was invoked. Most people don’t know this; to them the blessing is just a reflex, passed down from their parents. And, of course, it does no harm.

 

Although magical thinking may bring positive outcomes or merely be benign, it has a downside. It misrepresents reality. You can’t prevent something from happening by knocking on wood. Magical thinking makes us vulnerable to the conman who claims to have the solution to whatever problems we perceive. It causes us to substitute wishful thinking for sound practices.


In sports, the reason that a professional golfer will sink far more putts than anyone in Damisch’s study is because the pro has learned how to read a green and has many years of practice. In politics, a novice with no experience will not magically produce a great health-care plan or bring back jobs to a declining manufacturing industry.


• • •


Jim Glynn can be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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