New Internationalist

Magical thinkers

Issue 405

Trevor Turner sorts through the kind of infantilized thought so dear to the hearts of our political class.


Mark Chilvers / PANOS
Magical thinkers yuk it up: South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki believes the AIDS crisis is overblown and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe thinks you can defeat 1,000 per cent inflation by beating up small shopkeepers. Mark Chilvers / PANOS

Mark Chilvers / PANOS
Magical thinkers yuk it up: South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki believes the AIDS crisis is overblown and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe thinks you can defeat 1,000 per cent inflation by beating up small shopkeepers. Mark Chilvers / PANOS

Psychoanalysis went on many strange trips – but provides an imaginative understanding of how some people function. It may not necessarily be ‘true’, but for now it helps explain a lot. In fact, it’s been so good at explaining things that it has become the theoretical core of the advertising industry and the modern state. It does this by informing an infantile narcissistic culture, that relentlessly promotes super-individualism. People are enticed into economic dependence on maintaining an outward semiology (labels, brands, tattoos, hair styles) that controls the way they feel. It is no surprise that the most influential programme on the planet now is a cartoon, The Simpsons, and we have come to believe that the ability to ‘name’ something gives one power over it.

This kind of thinking, in the standard psychoanalytic canon, is known as ‘magical thinking’, and suggests that there are in fact two ways to think. One is ‘logical and verbalized, and functions according to the reality principle’. The other is ‘archaic, pictorial, magical and functions according to the pleasure principle’. Daydreams are very much part of the second type, substituting something nice for painful reality. This can also embrace the notion of magical gestures. Thus, if you feel ashamed, by looking away or covering your eyes with your hand you mean ‘nobody’s to look at me’. In a similar vein, children really believe that they can’t be seen if they cannot see. In his core psychoanalytic discourse, Otto Fenichel (The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 1946) suggested that one child ‘had the idea that when the conductor closes his eyes the train passes through a tunnel’. Thus the train plunging into darkness reflects the (parent-like) conductor’s actions and powers. For the child this is a magical thinking process (i.e. if I close my eyes I can’t be seen, if the conductor closes his eyes the world goes dark). A touch far-fetched, perhaps, but that’s just the problem for any sensible person.

Made-up world

Magical thinking is seen as part of what is also called ‘primary processing’ – thinking that takes place in the unconscious. In this process, abstract or ‘made-up’ images take on a real quality, as if they have been given some neurological truth. Thus one thinks something, and it can take on the perceptual quality of being real – a hologram-like experience, something external to oneself. The fleeting thought becomes something concrete and solid, generating notions of telepathy (reading people’s thoughts or experiencing other people’s thoughts as, physically, inside your head), or even Carrie-like telekinesis. You think and something happens. Thus: ‘If I get past that lamp-post before the next car overtakes me, I’ll be cured of cancer.’ At the broader political level this translates into deciding that if a policy is good and morally-driven, whatever results must also be a good thing.

Why do people think like this? The whole point of growing up is to get away from these primitive thought patterns, to generate a reality-based response to the world around us. Those who can’t do that remain dissatisfied and primitive in the way they think, the way they relate and the way they behave. Some of them even spend decades in psychoanalysis, for reasons that most people can’t fathom. However, if you consider that magical thinking is a kind of psychological defence against reality then you begin to see how it works. For example, such a psychological defence can make the elusive certain and the terrifying unterrifying.

If taken too far, of course, and becoming ‘ego dystonic’ (that is to say, not in accord with a realistic awareness of how you feel instinctively) you can become separated from your sense of self and actually psychotic. This has been part of the psychoanalytic understanding of serious psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, the so-called ‘split’ personality. Fortunately, most people do not go that far. Protection from such a journey is now afforded by a multiplicity of individual styles created by postmodernity, so people can, literally, live in their fantasies. ‘My Computer / My Music / My Documents / My Space’ etc are the logos of cyberspace, where Bill Gates and friends continue to direct us into infantilized worlds of super-competence and perfect beauty. The Sims and Second Life become you and yours.

No need for the complexities of reasoned argument and debate

For most of us this resort to childish patterns of thinking and doing is harmless. It is even a defence against some of the most awful things happening, like the melting of the icecaps and the murderous events in the Middle East. We can close our eyes and relocate our ears, for example at a rave with MDMA (Ecstasy) bouncing around our brains, and via this serotonin-induced magical thinking go into a whirligig of physical release, like daddy hurling us around the garden. Skiing, surfing and bungee-jumping are the essence of this ‘whee!’ philosophy, wherein we feel alive in a death-defying act. It’s hardly surprising therefore that modern politicians are having to connect up with this primitive thinking style, and so readily adopt infantilized attitudes, either by curling up into a foetal ball (as Tony Blair is reputed to do when no-one will agree with him) or refusing to read anything complicated, à la Ronald Reagan. In The Simpsons movie the President – played of course by that android-impersonator, Arnold Schwarzenegger – says: ‘I was elected to lead, not to read’ when confronted with a position paper.

The British (or Canadian or Australian) Parliament is extraordinary in the way it infantilizes all those who join it. Not only does it have terms and holidays as at school, and arcane rules, like school playgrounds, but it encourages horseplay. The strange roars, groans and hoots that emerge from Prime Minister’s Questions (a weekly event nowadays broadcast on the radio and TV) are primitive in the extreme. The Prime Minister becomes a kind of Head of Games, or even the Milk Monitor, with extraordinary – magical even – powers of promotion and dismissal. Cabinet members are sacked on a whim, based on the principle that, if I don’t see them at the Cabinet table then they won’t bother me. We even have news given before it has happened (‘Mr Brown will say in a speech this afternoon that …’) so as to make some rejigged platitudes seem like an achievement. The ‘Dear Leader’ thinks something therefore it is, and continues his climb into delusional cloud-cuckoo-land.

Taken from a US or UK perspective, it is quite clear that most of the presidents and prime ministers of the past 20 years have gone doolally. Margaret Thatcher certainly, via ‘there is no such thing as society’, and Tony Blair probably, in terms of a childishly hesitant speaking style, a staring-eyed sense of his own destiny, and ‘having no reverse gear’ – indicating that, by definition, he cannot be wrong. The homespun inanities of Ronald Reagan, the distorted ‘vision thing’ of Bush Senior and the neocon delusions of Dubya Bush and his gang reflect a childlike good/bad primitivism in terms of how they see the world. Everyone seems to be looking up at them, metaphorically speaking, therefore they must be right, have special knowledge. No need for the complexities of reasoned argument and debate. Ideas are, literally, seen in visual terms, and more is spent on making things look right than clarifying your English prose.

Magical words

As Fenichel points out, ‘words can kill and resurrect. They can perform miracles and turn time back. By a mere viable statement, the compulsive neurotic unconsciously believes that he can coerce reality into pursuing the course he desires.’ The generation of words becomes a thing in itself, and if you produce a policy, or a guideline, or a statement of intent, then really that’s enough. Politicians come to live in a complex word-world of hidden meanings and hinted powers, disappearing, like the gods of The Ring Cycle, into a vacuous Valhalla of increasing impotence. Other sources of power emerge that are not democratic, notoriously the post-Marxist managerial classes, adumbrated with their defining passport of acceptability, the MBA. Acquired qualifications and vocation, a knowledge of history, realistic thinking and acceptance of uncertainty are all deadly sins within this new infantilized perception.

In its wonderful discourse on the nature of death, reality and the impossibility of knowing anything about an afterlife, the late lamented Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal can help us to clear away some of this primitive thinking. A highly moral piece of work, that laughs at the pretensions of actors, of religion, of stupid people, it points out the importance of thinking about how to establish the truth. The re-emergence of the medieval in our ways of understanding the world is frightening. Most people probably find it so but lack the clarity of leadership to move on from the addictive toys and joys of permanent childhood. There are hints, in Britain, that Gordon Brown may (just may) be aware of this. But getting people to grow up and understand the real nature of cause and effect (not the pseudo-science of random associations) and to re-engage with difficult debates will not be popular. Playing chess with Death, à la Bergman’s smiling, ironic knight, is perhaps a starter – a daily game of engagement with the truth?

Trevor Turner is a mental health professional based in London.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Magical thinkers

Leave your comment