Matthew Hutson’s journalism on Magical Thinking has been inspiring my thoughts on advertising for a few years now, so when his book on the subject came out, I made it a point to pester his publisher for a review copy of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.

But rather than write a traditional review, I’m going to:

  • Just come right out and recommend the book. If you’re reading this blog, you’ll love the book — go grab a copy. And also…
  • Provide a quick summary of the 7 Laws as described in the book.

Follow up posts will focus on the Q&A’s with the author and advertising applications. So now it’s onto those titular 7 Laws.

Matthew Hutson’s 7 Laws of Magical Thinking are:

1) Objects Carry Essences

Think sports memorabilia, Catholic relics, historical artifacts.  The former owners of these objects, former acts that they took part in, and so on have imbued them with greater meaning and weight that go beyond the merely symbolic — they have essences. Jackie O’s fake pearl necklace sold for over $200K at auction, not because the lacquered marbles had any intrinsic value, but because they had some of Jackie’s essence in them.

A quote from the book says it all:

There are many layers of belief,” psychologist Carol Nemeroff says. “And the answer for many people, especially with regard to magic, is, ‘Most of me doesn’t believe but some of me does.'” People will often acknowledge their gut reaction and say it makes no sense to act on it—but do it anyway.”

We may not consciously believe in essences, but our actions prove otherwise. That’s why people recoil from a laundered article of clothing if they are told it was worn by a serial killer. It’s why you don’t want an exact replica of your wedding ring, but would insist on the actual ring, instead.

2) Symbols Have Power

Why did you know you where in trouble when your parents called you by your full name?  And why, as a parent, do you fully name your child when exerting authority over her?  There’s something powerful about a name-giver fully pronouncing a named entity and we instinctively recognize it; symbols have power.

I can’t help thinking of the famous Monty Python and the Holy Grail skit where the peasant has his political rant about how “strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”  Yeah, it’s the election and not the ceremony that matters. And yet, the President of the United States doesn’t become president after the election. The President-Elect only becomes President after the swearing in ceremony.

And marketing symbols have tremendous power — the power to make luxury brand wearers feel better about themselves, and sporty-brand wearers to feel more athletic, and to make wine taste better.  And let’s not forget Apple icon’s ability to make buyers open up their wallets. Those symbols have power, indeed.

3) Actions Have Distant Consequences

What happens to the voodoo doll also happens to the targeted person, despite the physical separation of doll and target. But that’s conscious belief in Magic. So what about cheering on your favorite team while watching the game in your living room? Does your mental support of the team matter?

What about pre-game or pre-Big Day rituals? Most of us have them, and most of us believe, at least on some level, that they help, that they have an effect on the results we achieve, or else why would we do them, right?

And what about tempting fate? Does switching checkout lines make the line you leave move faster? What about not “jinxing” a picknick by talking about the weather?  Or “knocking on wood”?  If you think about it, almost all superstition is based on “spooky action at a distance.” And superstition is universal. You can’t ignore it when modeling how people make decisions.

4) The Mind Knows No Bounds

Two words: The Secret. But again, that’s an example of people consciously believing in Magic, rather than having their subconscious belief reveal itself through everyday behaviors, despite a conscious denial of said belief. So how about Synchronicity. Even if we don’t believe in synchronicity, we see a causal connection between thinking about our spouses, only to have the call us at that very moment.  A part of us believes that they called us because we were thinking about them.

Similarly, most of us have also held the notion that we can “feel it” when someone stares at us. We understand what it means to feel as if we’re being watched.  And how exactly would we be able to feel that if we didn’t have some notion that the consciousness of one person can be picked up on by another without any sort of mediation or direct communication?

5) The Soul Lives On

Even those of us who don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife, still act as if they do. They’ll still go to a grave to pay their respects (to whom, exactly?), or hang on to contact information in their cell phones or computers.  Or, in a more famous example that Hutson quotes from The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion realized why she had an emotional block against giving away her dead husband’s shoes: she couldn’t do it because, somewhere in her unconscious, she still felt that “he would need shoes if he returned.”

And like most examples of Magical Thinking, the mere realization that one’s thinking is magical doesn’t release the spell. As Didion wrote of her he’ll-need-shoes revelation: “The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.” To re-quote Carol Numeroff: “Most of me doesn’t believe, but part of me does.”

6) The World Is Alive

If you’ve ever thrown a hammer after hitting your thumb, or kicked an inanimate object after bumping into it, or yelled at your car, you’ve acted as if the thing was alive and in possession of a conscious will, if not outright malice. Another great example of this comes from the movie Backdraft:

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Again, this guy is willing to consciously square with his idea of living fire, but most of us, at some level, have similar beliefs. Or at least we act as if we do.

7) Everything Happens for a Reason

We are wired to find meaning, and especially to look for and find meaning in the events that befall us. As Matthew Hutson writes in the book:

“We compose our life stories using the data given — the somewhat random happenings of our pasts — but then we get the roles of the data and the interpretation confused: we stare in wonder at how well the events seem to fit the theme, forgetting that we custom fit the theme to the events. It’s another example of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, but instead of drawing a target around a cluster of bullet holes and gawking at the aim of a marksman, your constructing a story around a series of occurrences and marveling at the wisdom and insight of providence. One stray bullet and you wouldn’t be who you are today”

You can see some of this magical thinking at work in the romantic comedy trope of “meeting cute.” To arrange for your leads to meet cute is to arrange for them to accidentally bump into each other through chance or happenstance, so that when they later fall in love, it feels more like their coupling was fated rather than self-directed.

Why This Stuff Matters

In a word, you have to meet people where they are, and persuade them on their terms, not yours. People aren’t rational little robots. They are irrational. Or, if you prefer, supra-rational. The good news is that they are, to borrow a phrase from Dan Ariely, predictably irrational.

Magical Thinking is one of the ways in which people are predictably irrational. And knowing the laws of magical thinking helps you make those predictions.

In other words, you really ought to go buy a copy of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking if your job involves influencing decisions.


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