Friday, October 19, 2018


Magical thinking can be simply described as the assigning of patterns and causation to events where those patterns and causation don’t actually exist. 
One of the main reasons psychologists give for why people engage in magical thinking is that it can give a sense of security – a feeling that one possesses some special knowledge about how to influence outcomes that would normally be out of one’s control.

Sometimes it’s just a bit of fun, of course.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has this anecdote about his friend the theologian Lee Siegel.
Siegel has published a number of papers and books on Indian religion and culture including this 1991 book on Indian street magic, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India.

Siegel explains that when he told people he was writing a book on magic, he was often asked “Is it a  book about real magic?”

By 'real magic' of course, people mean ‘miracles’ and acts involving ‘supernatural powers’.

Seigel would answer, ‘No, the book is about conjuring tricks, rope tricks, snake charming, illusions etc. Not real magic.'

So when people say ‘Real magic’, that really refers to the kind of magic that is not real.

Magic that cannot be done.

Whilst the magic that is real - the kind of magic that CAN actually be done - is not ‘real magic’.

It’s a trick.

‘Real magic’ is miraculous, a violation of the laws of nature.

Yet many people still want to believe in real magic.

A strange compulsion to believe in ‘real magic’ affects many people when the topic is advertising and brands.

This magical thinking assigns patterns and causation to events where patterns and causation do not exist.

Arthur C Clarke famously observed that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.

But did he mean ‘real magic’? Or the kind of magic that can be done?

My good friend Mark Earls proposed, back in 2013, that we should try substituting the word 'Magic' for 'Big' in Big Data.

‘…if we only master Magic Data, it will make us all-powerful; the sword of Magic Data will banish all evils.’

Magic data is now inexorably linked to magic AI and magic machine learning.

Not to mention the enduring popularity of other ‘magical’ things like content marketing, influencers, the enduring cult of ‘Lovemarks’, and a multitude of other maladies.

(I've been a proponent of applied behavioural economics and suchlike in recent years, however even invoking cognitive biases has now taken on 'magical' properties. More on that in another post.)

Gossage's observations in 1960-odd seem prophetic, now.

‘Advertising…is constantly being lured into seemingly allied fields that have little to do with its unique talents and often interfere with them. … But there is one job it does well that no other communication form does at all: the controlled propagation of an idea with a defined objective though paid space.’

One reason that we can tend to engage in magical thinking is that it gives a small feeling of security in our professional lives. That we have special knowledge about how to influence outcomes. 

Magical thinking is really about anxiety reduction.

But there is, of course, a kind of magic that CAN be done - namely, make something creative and interesting and put it in places where people will see it - the controlled propagation of an idea with a defined objective.

Or if you prefer the 2018 version, it's what Binet and Field call the virtuous circle.

'... creating consistently great creative content over several years and promoting it heavily through massive exposure in paid advertising media... [the] paid media helps generate earned media, which then amplifies the effect of paid media, creating a virtuous circle of rising fame and increasing effectiveness.'

It might not be 'real magic' but, when it works, it’s magic nonetheless.

'Trust none of what you hear,
And less of what you see'

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