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  • Magic and the Mind: Mechanisms, Functions, and Development of Magical Thinking and Behavior
  • Edward Bever
Eugene Subbotsky . Magic and the Mind: Mechanisms, Functions, and Development of Magical Thinking and Behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv + 202.

Most modern Western adults say they don't believe in magic, and undoubtedly believe they don't believe in magic, but in certain circumstances, when the stakes are high or the costs of appearing credulous are low, they act in ways that indicate that at some level they actually do. This disjunction between explicit and implicit convictions about magic is peculiar to modern Western adults. Young children accept magical and physical causation equally readily, and magical thinking plays a positive role in their cognitive development. Similarly, unschooled adults in traditional societies accept magical as well as physical causation and phenomena, and magic plays a prominent role in the folk cultures that organize their lives. Developing and sustaining conscious disbelief requires the deliberate creation and habitual deployment of active psychological defenses, which are instilled and supported by the powerful cultural forces of institutionalized religion and science. Together, these findings suggest that magical thinking is an integral part of human cognition not just in childhood but throughout the life cycle, and is driven from modern Westerners' consciousness not by the natural triumph of our innate rationality but by the concerted pressure of antagonistic cultural traditions.

This line of reasoning is, in a nutshell, the core argument developmental psychologist Eugene Subbotsky advances in Magic and the Mind. In the first chapter he sets out key definitions and distinctions, like NIMBs (non-institutional magical beliefs) as opposed to both institutional magical beliefs (religion) and science, "magical thinking" (which in his definition necessarily involves a fantasy world), and "magical beliefs" (which are about the real world). He then proceeds in the next nine chapters to methodically detail the [End Page 215] series of experiments he has conducted over the past thirty years involving young children, older children, modern Western adults, and unschooled third-world adults that form the evidentiary foundation of the book. Each chapter focuses on a different developmental or cognitive issue: different aspects of younger and older children's beliefs and behaviors in regard to "mind-over-matter" magic (Chapters 2-4); adults' beliefs and behaviors concerning the same (Chapters 5-7, including a cross-cultural study in Chapter 6); beliefs and behaviors regarding "mind-over-mind" magic and its relationship to imagination and communications (Chapters 8 and 9); and magical beliefs and psychological defenses (Chapter 10). Throughout these chapters Subbotsky integrates his own research with related work by other psychologists and anthropologists, and in a long penultimate chapter (Chapter 11) draws the different strands he has been tracing together into a broad theoretical overview. In the short last chapter he surveys the role of magical thinking over the course of the life cycle, and in an epilogue he ruminates briefly on the socially and psychologically beneficial functions of magic, like its promotion of confidence in uncertain situations and its emphasis on the organic connection between humans and their environment.

As this last topic suggests, Subbotsky's reflections range well beyond his core argument. In an earlier side excursion, for example, he discusses the role of suggestion and indirect persuasion, which he regards as secularized conceptualizations of magical techniques, in modern politics and advertising, while the theoretical chapter ends with a highly technical discussion relating changes in children's thinking about magic to a broader process that he calls "essentialization," which establishes hierarchies of ontological certainty. In both cases Subbotsky's professed goal is to show the connection between magical and mundane cognitive processes, but the excursions detract from rather than bolster his overall presentation. The first draws him into social and political issues he is not equipped to discuss authoritatively, while the second bogs the discussion down in an abstruse topic that, however important it may be to developmental psychologists, seems secondary to the larger issues the book raises. The book is also somewhat weakened by the omission of precise statistical analyses to support statements about the significance of results (although these are contained in the articles the chapters are based on...


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pp. 215-218
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